Synopsis: When wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) turns up dead with his throat slit, private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives on the scene to figure out who might have done the foul deed. Trouble is everyone in the house, even Harlan’s saintly nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), seems to have motive and opportunity to do away with the old man.
1. Rian ‘COTBSWMSE’* Johnson, is, for better or worse (mostly better), a subverter of genre tropes. Brick was an unholy fusion of a high-school movie and a noir film that worked against all odds, Looper dealt with its central time-travel mechanic with a winking reminder not to take it too seriously, and The Last Jedi is as of now the only Star Wars movie not created by George Lucas that has dared to do anything original with the material. With Knives Out, Johnson turns his prodigious talents to the whodunnit, a genre that has largely fallen out of favour, and revitalises it with a blast of creative energy. This is one of the best written and plotted movies I have seen in a long while, a terrifically clever puzzle box that continually stays one step ahead of its audience without ever resorting to cheating. Every payoff has a setup, and the third act is essentially a twenty-one Chekhov’s gun salute (including elements so subtle they are bound to be missed on first viewing). But above all, Knives Out is pure unadulterated fun, from the fiendish trickery of its plot to its razor-sharp editing to the performances of every single actor in its impossibly stacked cast. That it also happens to be an ingenious allegory of race and class relations in America is the perfect little cherry on top of a scrumptious cake.
2. I normally like to talk about the acting later on in the review, but good lord, look at these names! Daniel Craig is having the time of his life putting on the silliest Southern accent as Benoit Blanc, a detective who keeps the reader in two minds about his competence all the way until the final scene.****** In the arena of playing against type, Chris Evans gleefully shreds his Captain America persona with a cocksure arrogance as family black sheep Ransom while Michael Shannon gets to play the meek and put-upon youngest son Walt. Jamie Lee Curtis sharpens her usual badassery into a flinty steel as eldest daughter Linda, and is ably supported in every scene by Don Johnson as her husband Richard, who, between this movie and Watchmen, is really carving out a niche for himself as privileged racist douchebag. Toni Collette is fucking hilarious as the totally-not-based-on-Gwyneth-Paltrow Joni, while Christopher Plummer creates a solid impression of the dead man in his few scenes. Hell, the film has such an embarrassment of riches that it can afford to cast as fantastic a presence as Lakeith Stanfield in the role of straight man. Yet it is the least known actor who carries the entire enterprise the most, as Ana de Armas gives a lovely portrayal as the one person in this whole sordid mess with a conscience.
3. The opening act is a work of pure craftsmanship, as Johnson cross-cuts the interrogation of the various family members along with their memories of what really happened that night. Not only do we get some wonderful comedy in the edits through the contrast of differing statements and recollections, but this scene also serves to perfectly establish the time and space of the incident, as well as give an immediate impression of each of our various characters. It is economical, ingenious storytelling, and a masterclass of how to convey exposition and characterisation in an entertaining fashion.
4. Of course, what this opening act also does is to prime the viewer to try to figure out the case along with Blanc, which is when Johnson drops his first gauntlet. I will not go into spoilers here, but let’s just say that he breaks one of the (if not the) cardinal rules of the genre, which also transforms the movie into something more suspenseful and urgent without removing any of its cerebral and aesthetic pleasures. The one minor problem this reveal creates is that the Thrombey family members and each of their specific dysfunctions does fade a little into the background, which is a real pity considering how well they are characterised. I suppose this is one restrictive element of the film medium, as if this were a detective novel, there would be enough time and space to properly go into detail about so many of the little nuggets of information on the family without sacrificing the main plot.
5. Knives Out is a very clever movie, and the cleverest thing it does is to mean something. Far from creating disposable but fun entertainment, Johnson has created a whip-smart allegory for class and racial politics in America today. You-know-who is mentioned, and there is a brilliant running gag on how each member of the family cannot remember the country where Marta is from. In their treatment of her (a working-class Latinx woman with an undocumented single mother), Johnson savagely satirises the racist attitudes towards immigrants by supposed ‘self-made’ wealthy white people, ranging from full-bore Nazism to the patronising liberal racism so intelligently critiqued in Get Out. All this leads to a perfect final shot so cathartic that it will make you want to stand up and cheer.
6. Oh yes, it is also funny as all hell. Each member of the cast is clearly having a blast tearing into Johnson’s one-liners, and there are several eminently quotable bon mots. Beyond the clever zingers (and Craig’s absolutely hilarious musings on doughnut holes), this is a movie that understands how to do visual comedy, from editing two separate shots of speedometers to deflate the gravity of a car chase, to using the blocking and body language of Collette and Curtis to instantaneously convey the relationship between their characters in a funny manner. Full credit must go to Johnson and the cast for keeping the breezy tone going without ever trivialising the importance of its themes or story.
7. It is this humanism and moral clarity that really makes Knives Out stand apart. The film serves as a clarion call for decency and honesty, and its message that a virtuous outsider is far more deserving of reward than the scheming insiders claiming birthright is almost radical in this current political climate. Politics aside, Knives Out is that rarest of beasts – an intelligent, entertaining original film that treats its audience with respect. With its ridiculously loaded cast and gifted director, this is a film with nary a dull moment, filled to the brim with wit, heart, and brains. It is most probably one of the most fun experiences I have had in a cinema in a while, and that, coupled with its immaculate craftsmanship and resonant thematic message, makes Knives Out one of the best films of the year.
* Creator Of The Best Star Wars Movie Since Empire.**
** Not that one, because the Endor section is dead boring.***
*** Not that one either, because Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are so bland I cannot even remember their characters’ names.****
**** If you honestly think it’s that one (the one that is a remake all but in name), we can’t be friends.*****
***** Fine, maybe that one, because I too, do not like sand.
****** Another grace note in this movie and in Craig’s performance specifically – after so many coldly arrogant super-genius detectives, it is just so goddamn refreshing that Craig and Johnson portray Blanc as a warm and empathetic man who cares about the innocent first and foremost.