2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Daniel Craig, Ana De Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Frank Oz | written & Directed by Rian Johnson | 2 hrs 10 mins |
The movie world loves Agatha Christie mysteries. Whether recreating them outright in last year’s Murder on the Orient Express or tucking them inside other genre films like The Hateful Eight or Hot Fuzz do. Few filmmakers however quite have the guts to attempt an original, straight-forward murder mystery in Agatha Christie’s signature style. Which brings us to the seemingly fearless Rian Johnson (several years after Brick and Looper and 1 year after his take on The Last Jedi turned the Star Wars universe upside down) and Knives Out. Unlike in Last Jedi, when Johnson’s ambition seemed to exceed his grasp of folding that into a good story, Knives Out is a perfect melding of that raw ambition and material. Where everything that didn’t work in Last Jedi – the humor, the genre-subversion – plays out terrifically in this package. Knives Out is one of the best, most cleverly constructed and thoroughly entertaining movies of the year.
It all starts in the home of famed mystery writer Harlan Thromby (Christpher Plummer) as his entire clan has gathered for his 80th birthday. The next day he was found dead, neck slit, apparently by his own hand. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), Johnson’s Poirot character with a cartoonish Southern drawl, to line up the rogues gallery of suspects including Harlan’s children Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walt (Michael Shannon) and Joni (Toni Collette), their spouses and children. Blanc, unsure who hired him, also finds Harlan’s caretaker Marta (Ana De Armas, Blade Runner 2049) a helpful witness when he learns that she has a reflex that prevents her from lying.
Johnson constructs a fine web here out of these characters, showing us flashbacks that contradict their stories with the police, giving us characters that can’t lie and can’t tell the truth, showing us a seemingly air-tight take on what happened and then poking holes in it over the course of the running time. The movie sends us on a merry chase down leads and red-herrings, deploying all sorts of tricks to let us uncover who is lying and who is telling the truth. It’s a fun old-fashioned whodunnit that like an Agatha Christie novel, isn’t as much concerned about who did it, as finding a new way to explore how one could have done it in an impossible scenario.
The cast is uniformly great, but Johnson also does a clever thing by hanging most of the movie around the relatively unknown Ana De Armas which requires us to leave our preconceptions of these actors at the door and enjoy the character work. Marta deftly navigates around the snake’s den of Thromby family dysfunction who pretend the maid is “part of the family” (in a hilarious runner, they all think they know what country she’s from) while turning on her – and each other – with family fortune at stake. After years of somber roles Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette and Jamie Lee Curtis all look like they are having the time of their lives and it is a ton of fun watching Craig chew through the scenery with that Foghorn Leghorn accent.
My biggest little gripe with the film is how deliberately contemporary Johnson makes it. The story, the characters, the ornate Thromby estate the action is set in could easily be timeless, but for reasons unknown and not at all relevant to the ultimate mystery, Johnson goes out of his way to time stamp it with some very 2019 political and technological references so we know exactly when it takes place and potentially dating it for years to come. Not too Agatha Christie.
Knives Out is an exhilarating, high-wire piece of filmmaking – and original filmmaking at that. Any thoughts that Johnson would be shaken by The Last Jedi experience are blown out of the water. This is the work of a filmmaker confidently firing on all cylinders. It’s pure cinematic joy.