by Mark Ziobro
Knives Out is a romp, a ‘whodunit,’ a bold-faced homage to the murder mystery genre. And, with an unrecognizable Daniel Craig at the helm, this movie has become one of the most clever films of the year. The film, directed and written by Rian Johnson, is both a director’s movie and a writer’s movie, succeeding with a tight, authentic script, pleasing cinematography, and complementary acting. It’s a film that takes the ensemble cast picture, deconstructs it, and turns it into a pleasing nod to itself as an exercise in thoughtful filmmaking. Underneath it all, Knives Out is hysterically entertaining; it’s a solid effort, through-and-through.
The plot is simple yet complex and overlapping. A pair of detectives (LaKeith Stanfield & Noah Segan), and an inquisitive private eye (Daniel Craig), are sent to the palatial estate of the Thrombey clan to investigate the apparent suicide of its patriarch, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Thrombey has slit his throat, found dead by his housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Of course the audience, and doubtless the detectives, expect something deeper is afoot and begin investigating. Starting by interviewing the family one-on-one, we are introduced to a world of riches and affluence, but one lined with family dysfunction, deceit, and unscrupulous morals that make any and all a prime suspect.
Added to the mix is Marta (Ana de Armas), a South American immigrant whom the family loves but can never quite remember what country she comes from. She was Harlan’s nurse and is considered family. She becomes, along with Craig, an entry point into these people’s lives, a narrator that shows a pathology seething inches below the surface.
What works in Knives Out is the clear effort Johnson poured into the script, along with the film’s stellar casting. We have a widely eclectic cast, filled with such talent as Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Toni Collette; a pair of grandchildren, played by Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell, round out the rest of the cast.
But keep in mind – there are no show stealers here – simply actors that add to the movie in unique ways. Lee Curtis’ Linda is a self-made woman who clearly revered her late father and protects other members of the family. Shannon’s Walt is a daddy’s boy who has been ensconced by his father’s success and never made it out on his own. Johnson’s Richard is conniving and sarcastic and makes no apologies for it. Collette’s Joni is whimsical and duplicitous.
This opening montage, which takes up nearly 20 minutes of screen time, cements these characters: their lifestyles, their beliefs, and the dysfunction that haunts them just waiting to explode (and, believe me, explode it does).
Knives Out is a crime drama and escapist piece which’s inherent charm lies in the way it grabs you and holds you as it unravels one plot twist after another. Yet, in superb filmmaking, Johnson unravels his plot slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully, focusing in equal measure on the mystery itself as well as the family dynamics it brings to the surface. Early on, we think we know the whole story – but of course – red herrings, bait switches, and false leads take us in places we didn’t think it could go.
For example, an infuriated grandson, Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) storms out of a family party the night of Harlan’s death after giving the man a warning, so we assume foul play. But we are then shown rather acutely who is to blame for Harlan’s death, with no attempt at subtext, placing the blame on someone else while hinting at the possible involvement of person a, b, c, etc.
Johnson layers his film with idiosyncrasies and nuances, such as an aged grandmother (K Callan) who sees all yet cannot talk, detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) that was hired anonymously and suspects something much deeper is going on, and, of course, Harlan’s nurse, the kind-hearted Marta who is such a good person she cannot even tell a lie or else she will vomit (the latter works its way into the film so cleverly, and with such a zinger of a pièce de résistance finale, one wonders how director Johnson created such an effective set-piece so effortlessly).
I’ve been a fan of Craig’s for some time, first seeing him in the dramatic indie “Flashbacks of a Fool.” But he outdoes himself here. This is one of his most interesting roles to date, and certainly one of his highest acting challenges. Gone is the debonair persona and fashion of James Bond, and gone, also, is his elegant English accent, replaced by what one character snarks is a “Kentucky-fried Foghorn Leghorn drawl.” Craig’s Benoit Blanc is an enigma, a man who inserts his character with humor and keen observation, becoming at first a purveyor to shine a light on a mysterious family, and later the film’s de facto hero who unravels the puzzle.
Alongside him, de Armas is wonderful, imbuing young Marta with a naive innocence and kind heart. The film’s greatest compliment is that it makes her a strong female character that, ironically, becomes so strong by being so utterly good. Watch as de Armas plays off Craig, the latter grilling her inquisitively, the former bowing to pressure, but watch, also, as their dance becomes something more as Johnson presents events that keep us guessing, even when we think we have it all figured out.
Knives Out has some further jewels, most notably its commentary on our current political climate (one scene as the uber-privileged family debates illegal immigration – even going so far to involve Marta in the conversation – is especially poignant), as well as its third act, which presents a non-stop barrage of guessing games and plot twists. The third act is almost solely carried by Craig, de Armas, and, surprisingly, Evans, who shows once again what a terrific actor he can be when he finds material he can sink his teeth into. The climax of the film ramps up the audience’s nerves to the nth degree, helped by the terrific acting, clever cinematography, and a perfect, Agatha Christie-type ending.
The bottom line: Knives Out is great entertainment. It’s familiar but different and comes out of left field to present an experience I wasn’t expecting at all. It involves the audience directly in its proceedings, makes smart commentary along the way, and wraps it up with a tight, realistic finish. Catch this movie if you can – you won’t be disappointed.