Film Review: “KNIVES OUT” is Over-the-Top Whodunit Fun

Rian Johnson has proven himself a gifted writer-director at the helm of genre films that run the gamut from neo-noir to blockbuster action and science fiction.  Now, Johnson has sunk his teeth into a subverted ode to traditional mystery stories of the Agatha Christie era.  Johnson’s vision is replete with all the appropriate gothic imagery.  As mystery writer Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) family gathers at his imposing New England home for his birthday–and later, questioning regarding his death–we can delight in a cast of eccentric characters latched firmly in tropes that help embed KNIVES OUT in a rich history of whodunit film and literature.  Harlan’s ornate knife display is by far the most appropriate place for Lakeith Stanfield’s Detective Lieutenant Elliot (or any law enforcement officer, for that matter) to interview potential murderers.

The first thing you may notice if you’ve seen the KNIVES OUT trailer is that Daniel Craig has shed his traditional James Bond British accent for a deep Louisiana drawl.  His Detective Benoit Blanc has all the ingredients to make an engaging recurring sleuth solving endless mysteries with his pervasive eye for detail.  As he sits in on D/Lt Elliot’s interrogations, he lends an air of both gravitas and comedy.  Of course, KNIVES OUT is not your typical murder mystery; it actually doesn’t take that long for us to find out how Harlan Thrombey died.  Instead, it is everything that happens after this revelation that makes this film worth watching.

With a star-studded cast portraying an array of outrageous characters, Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera is essential in anchoring the story.  Marta is Harlan’s nurse.  Kind, perhaps to a fault, she also exhibits a ludicrous visceral reaction to telling untruths, which makes Detective Blanc’s investigation that much easier.  Her inability to tell a lie necessitates a number of artful dodges and contortions of the truth as she attempts to smooth over the underlying Thrombey family dynamics that may have contributed to Harlan’s demise.  Superb performances by Jamie Lee Curtis as Harlan’s intrepid and ambitious daughter Linda, Toni Collette’s spot-on lifestyle influencer Joni, and Michael Shannon’s slighted son Walter create the perfect environment for Johnson’s entertaining and murderous vision.

Family dynamics obviously play a huge role in the plot of KNIVES OUT.  Entitled playboy Ransom (Chris Evans), Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson), social justice warrior Meg (Katherine Langford), conservative internet troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and Harlan’s ancient mother (K Callan) round out the main players in the Thrombey clan, each providing a unique perspective to the events of the film.  As with any large family gathering, differing opinions and political identities can make for a volatile mix, even without the added complication of murder.  In one of the more timely sub-plots, not only can none of the Thrombeys ever remember which country Marta actually immigrated from; they even unabashedly ask her input during a heated immigration debate.

It is difficult to find a single thing to dislike about Johnson’s film.  Perhaps the only soft spot would be the inclusion of Riki Lindhome as Walter’s wife Donna.  Her presence seems to add little or no narrative purpose, with her sole memorable contribution coming during a a single conversation.  Otherwise, each character is distinct, sometimes humorously so, and their motivations for murder equally diverse.  Johnson’s choice to reveal Harlan’s fate to the audience so early in the film allows time for viewers to spin their own twists and turns before the climax, which makes the ultimate revelation all the more worthwhile and unexpected.

For fans of Johnson, Christie, CLUE (the game or the movie), and other mystery writers extraordinaire, KNIVES OUT is a delightfully refreshing take on the genre.  This is clearly a passion project for Johnson, who spent more than a decade working up to this script, and his desire to remain true to mystery tropes while injecting his own unique take on the subject is clear, resulting in a dreadfully enjoyable experience.

KNIVES OUT opens nationwide on November 27, 2019.

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