Year of Release: 2019 Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, LaKeith Stanfield, and Christopher Plummer.
Between Looper and The Last Jedi, as talented as Rian Johnson clearly is, it was beginning to seem that he would overthink his film plots, writing himself into a corner with no completely satisfying resolution to all the threads and themes he was tying together. Therefore, when I saw the trailers for Knives Out, a comedic whodunnit, I was intrigued, knowing it would be a riveting mystery with plenty of twists, but I was also concerned it would suffer from the same drawbacks that I thought hurt his previous two films.
I don’t know if it was juggling the large cast of characters, having one central twist that everything leads to, or just a case of the third time being the charm, but Knives Out has no such shortcomings and is one of the most clever and enjoyable films of this year.
Johnson knows the expected beats of a murder mystery, and he respects his audience enough to assume they know those beats too. Predictable guesses are quickly subverted, and Johnson is a master of using our expectations as a means of misdirection. Recaps and standard expository material are briskly presented to focus on the driving forces of the movie—the eccentric characters portrayed with juicy flare by the all-star cast and the not particularly subtle but fittingly biting social commentary.
At the head of the cast is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a cross between Columbo, Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and even a touch of Clouseau. He references Conan Doyle’s detective stories and humorously strikes one piano key as if he knows when someone is lying to him. The eccentric accent is some sort of cross between French and Southern American, and it’s a fitting cultural blend in a movie that wants to exalt the meek and humble immigrants while casting down the mighty white nationalists.
The meek and humble immigrant is Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who serves Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) as a nurse and friend after coming to America from Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, or whichever South/Central American country pops into the mind of one of Harlan’s family members at the current moment. Most of the family wanted her to attend Harlan’s funeral, but they were all outvoted.
Marta is equally honest as she is meek, and Blanc refers to her inability to lie as a “regurgitatory reflex to un-truthing.” Therefore, when Harlan is found with his throat slit by apparent suicide, Blanc enlists her as his Watson to learn the truth about each family members’ secrets, especially since Blanc received a large sum of cash from an anonymous source to investigate foul play in regards to Harlan’s death.
Most of the family obviously has a motive for wanting Harlan dead, and Johnson spins those motives into a farce of the family politics common at most large family gatherings. It’s especially fitting and comic given then film’s Thanksgiving release. At the same time, Johnson continues his twisting of the tropes one would find in an Agatha Christie mystery with developments that connect the politics and the intrigue as apparent altruism quickly turns into more selfish motives.
In addition to the three main characters, each cast member is given enough material that they make a memorable impression in their supporting roles—all nine members of the family, the maid, the family lawyer, and the two police officers assisting Benoit Blanc. As Harlan’s two surviving children Linda and Walt, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon both display the entitlement of spoiled rich adults. Their children Ransom (Chris Evans) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) have taken that to further extremes. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) fits right into the family’s arrogance and materialism. The scene where and he and Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan’s deceased son, spar is probably all too familiar to most Americans. Joni and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are the liberal black sheep of the family, at least as long as it’s convenient to be so.
I’ve avoided saying as much as possible about the plot, and it is definitely best to avoid reviews which discuss any of it in detail. The best surprises are not only the mystery reveals and the insignificant details that aren’t, but the ways in which Johnson makes sure every character gets what they deserve.
Knives Out is a film that understands the value of entertainment, and Rian Johnson delivers that in spades on multiple levels, from the thrill of the mystery to the social justice themes. The final scene masterfully ties everything together not only narratively but visually as well, closing a highly worthwhile murder mystery.
Personal recommendation: A