A film review by Craig J. Koban December 9, 2019

RANK: #9

KNIVES OUT jjjj
 

2019, R, 130 mins.

 

Ana de Armas as Marta  /  Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc  /  Chris Evans as Hugh Robinson  /  Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Robinson  /  Toni Collette as Joni  / Michael Shannon as Walt  /  Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombrey  /  Don Johnson as Morris Bristow  /  LaKeith Stanfield as Detective Troy Archer  /  Katherine Langford as Meg Thrombrey  /  Riki Lindhome as Donna Thrombrey  /  Noah Segan as Trooper Wagner

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

After the disappointing and creatively wrongheaded STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, Iím very happy to report that writer/director Rian Johnsonís KNIVES OUT is a most welcome return to superb form for the filmmaker.  Itís an impeccably directed, ingeniously written, and superbly performed whodunnit murder mystery that has great, unbridled fun within the genre while transcending it all the same.  I've always thought highly of Johnson's work, from his audaciously crafted BRICK from 2005 (a modern day set high school flick done with the noir aesthetic of 1940s thrillers) to his supremely inventive and enthralling 2012 sci-fi time travel focused LOOPER, with his last film journeying into a galaxy far, far away being his most disappointingly weak endeavors of the bunch.  KNIVES OUT all but casts away those recent doubts about Johnson's worthy prowess as a uniquely inventive cinematic provocateur.   

The  murder victim in question in KNIVES OUT is Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer), who was a widely successful writer of - what else? - murder mystery fiction before he was officially pushing up daisies.  He was unfortunately found dead by his loyal housekeeper in Fran (Edi Patterson) with a ghastly knife slit wound on his throat and the bloody weapon still in his dead hand, which seems to point towards suicide (granted, a very slow and painful manner of offing oneself).  A couple of intrepid cops show up at the Thrombrey mansion (terrifically played by Noah Segan and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU's LaKeith Standfield) in order to question all of the remaining family members to ensure that there was no foul play afoot.  KNIVES OUT bobs and weaves pretty seamlessly from present to past and back and forth again in terms of character flashbacks recalling the day of the death in question.  And it soon becomes clear that something is just not right about Harlan's questionable demise. 

We're slowly introduced to this family's rich menagerie of personalities, first of whom being the eldest daughter to Harlan in Linda (a delightfully snarky Jamie Lee Curtis), a take no prisoners and brutally frank businesswoman married to her potentially cheating husband in Richard (Don Johnson), with their son being the a-hole, trust fund living brute in Ransom (yup, his actual name, atypically cast with Chris "Captain America" Evan at the helm).  Harlan's other son Walt (a refreshingly low key and understated Michael Shannon) runs his dad's publishing empire, but when he's essentially fired by the old man before his death fingers start to point towards him.  Then again, Harlan's daughter-in-law in the gold digging Joni (Toni Collette) may or may not have been stealing from him for years, making her another suspect.  But what of Harlan's most trusted ally, his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas)?  She was in very close proximity to Harlan when he died and probably knows more than what she's letting on.  She also certainly seems awfully fidgety when questioned.  

Hmmmmm... 

 

 

The police investigators themselves don't seem to be getting anywhere with their case, that is until famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows up to turn the witness questioning upside down on its head.  Blanc is pretty sure that foul play was at hand with Harlan's death, seeing as the evidence doesn't completely gel with suicide and the fact that he was mysteriously hired by an unknown person - and paid upfront - to come to the Thrombrey mansion and dig around for the truth.  Blanc finds what he considers a trusted sidekick in his sleuthing in Marta herself, who has a very peculiar condition of not being able to tell a lie...without immediately vomiting afterwards (pretty handy for any P.I.).  What then commences is Blanc engaging in cross examination of all of the family members, not to mention a painstaking examination of the room Harlan died in.  He deduces that he didn't die by his own hand and that a donut-like hole in the collected family stories from the night needs to be filled by the truth.  Regrettably for Blanc, he uncovers a hole within the hole, which complicates matters immensely. 

One of the immense pleasures of watching KNIVES OUT is that it certainly feels nostalgic for the classic murder mysteries of yesteryear that have graced the screen while simultaneously not relying on slavishly adherence to the genre's well worn and some would say overused conventions.  Of course, in pure murder mystery fashion, Johnson's screenplay offers up a body, the mystery surrounding the person's death, the rounding up of suspects, and then the obligatory pointing finger guessing games that come as a result.  All of that is present in KNIVES OUT, but then Johnson gets devilishly clever with misdirection, offering up an early explanation for the main mystery while introducing a whole new and juicy one to propel the narrative forward.  KNIVES OUT initially plays out like a fairly recognizable whodunnit, but then it unleashes a whole new whodunnit on top that's arguably more intriguing than the simple murder plot.   Johnson has made a career of tapping into convoluted mysteries - in one form or another - with the aforementioned BRICK and his mostly forgotten, but stellar conman flavored THE BROTHERS BLOOM, but in KNIVES OUT he takes his fondness of the genre to whole new levels of hero worship, leaving a film that's both paying homage to classic film while sending them up with a sly and all knowing wink to the audience. 

What makes KNIVES OUT so compellingly watchable is the core family dynamic contained within, and Johnson has a field day concocting a richly assembled group of players to populate this twisty yarn, with each having their own insecurities about their pre-death relationship with Harlan.  Linda is kind of the de facto leader of the family after Harlan's passing, even though she always seems hostile to everyone in her sight.  Harlan's other child in Walt had huge power in controlling his father's publishing business, but when that control is taken away it leaves him a broken and bitter man.  Joni is one of the more noticeable black sheeps of the family, whose daughter (Katherine Langford) attends a very expensive private school that Harlan decides to no longer fund after he suspects that Joni has been stealing from him for years.  Then there's Richard, who adulterous ways are known only to him and Harlan, which raises some eyebrows after Harlan bites the dust.  Lastly, there's Ransom, who's basically the family dickhead that lives a life of wealth and luxury off of Harlan's dime, but was heard by multiple family members having a heated argument with his grandfather the night of his death.  

Hmmmmmm... 

Caught in-between all of this is poor Marta herself, who not only has been dealt the horrible blow of her beloved employer's death, but also intimate knowledge that she knows what has really happened to him, which haunts her even more.  Anna De Armas gives a breakout performance as this mentally ravaged and anxiety plagued figure caught up within an increasing tail spinning investigation by Blanc.  Daniel Craig himself seems to be really relishing playing a rather broad and heavily southern accented detective that could have become a distracting caricature if it weren't for the actor's total commitment and immersion in the role.  He's like a laid back, but still eccentric American version of Sherlock Holmes, and Craig skilfully plays him like the smartest man in the room that takes a bit of time to actually get there.  I especially admired Evans' casting here, who adopts a role that's the polar opposite of his squeaky clean and morally sound MCU hero.  He oozes lecherous, douchebag antagonism throughout, with a smirk that you just want to slap off of his face. 

It should also be noted that Johnson has engineered a sensational looking mystery thriller here as well, with the Thrombey mansion itself - featuring Oscar worthy production design by David Crank - becoming a lush and vast, but chillingly foreboding secondary character in itself.  Johnson has always been a supreme cinematic stylist, and he's up to some old visual tricks here thanks to Steve Yedlin's flashy, but not too ostentatious cinematography.  Throughout its two hours KNIVES OUT simply feels alive with playfully haunting imagery, and the manner that Johnson arrives at his pitch perfectly rendered final shot that speaks volumes towards the entire plight of this beleaguered family is a masterstroke.  I love it when movies dare to defy genre expectations, and I have no doubt that murder mystery aficionados will ravenously eat up KNIVES OUT while acknowledging just how superbly conceived and cunningly executed it is.  The film is delightfully old fashioned, yet told with a contemporary edge and ingenuity.  With KNIVES OUT Johnson has dusted off his most recent directorial indiscretion to pull off an inspired and twisted Agatha Christie inspired mystery tale that also happens to be one of the year's best offerings.

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