By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 30, 2019)
This is such a fun movie. If you want to stop reading right now, I respect that decision. I didn’t want to bury the lede. It’s been a while since we had a clever mystery on the big screen, especially one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, like the disappointing Girl on the Train or the overly salacious Gone Girl adaptation from David Fincher. Even the Murder on the Orient Express remake failed to come close to replicating what came before, and while Knives Out doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre, it does everything a great whodunit should, but with humor and a wild cast of characters that makes it even more enjoyable.
The Ringer wrote an article comparing the Thrombey family of the movie to the Roy family of HBO’s best current drama, Succession. It’s a good piece and a good thought to elaborate on, as there are unquestionable similarities, and while virtually no one is there for you to root for in the show, you do get one character in Knives Out to follow.
Actually, two if you include Benoit Blanc, a brilliantly over-the-top detective from the Bayou, played by Daniel Craig with the most intentionally terrible southern accent in recent memory. It’s so preposterously ridiculous as to be perfect in virtually every way, and folks, Daniel Craig is so good in this movie. He’s fun, he’s quick witted, and the way he delivers dialogue captures the balance of satire and seriousness that Knives Out trades in so effectively.
The short version of the story is that the patriarch of the Thrombey family, Harlan (I immediately thought of Harlan Coben, but only because of the name and the mystery idea), dies. His housekeeper finds him dead in his study, throat slashed and lying prone on a small sofa. Maybe it was a murder, though the details are all sketchy, and as you’d expect everybody in the family seems to have a motive, because Harlan is a world famous, filthy rich mystery novelist with a super-lucrative estate and a publishing company worth billions. His daughter is entitled and his children and THEIR children are damaged, needy, arrogant victims that range from adulterers to basket cases to alt-right internet trolls.
It quickly becomes a whodunit, where Benoit Blanc, a detective of some renown courtesy of recent press, including a profile in The New Yorker, finds himself drawn into the case after an anonymous client hires him to investigate the crime alongside the local authorities, played by Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta) and Noah Segan (again working with Rian Johnson, previously in Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper). None of the police or authorities are portrayed as morons, but Segan’s character is a huge fan of Harlan’s work and he plays fan boy at times, not overdone but there to show how well-known the family is.
Knives Out embraces the comparisons you can make to other stories, most notably Clue, with Stanfield’s Detective Elliot at one point remarking that “the guy basically lives on a Clue board.” Yes, he does, and it’s very much supposed to give off that aura without a hint of coincidence. Everything in this movie is deliberate, but where the credit needs to go first is to the lack of obvious plot holes that would make the puzzle pieces fit. Here, everything makes good sense, and when it does come time for the climax and the solution, it works.
The cast is really good as well, highlighted by a rare dark, jerkish performance from Chris Evans, who generally plays the hero of heroes as Captain America. Here, his Hugh Ransom Drysdale is a spoiled punk of an adult that enjoys stirring up as many problems as he can, while continually looking only to his selfish ends. Toni Collette does everything well, which didn’t change here, and Don Johnson’s solid 2019 continues as he plays a very Don Johnson-like self-centered character. Along with his brief performance as Judd Crawford on Watchmen, he brings Richard Drysdale to obnoxious life.
Michael Shannon’s unhinged Walter is another classic role for him, and although no one gets significantly more screen time than anyone else, the two most important figures in the film are Daniel Craig’s Blanc and Ana de Armas’ Marta, and those two shine alongside Evans as the three most effective in the movie. In understated fashion, Stanfield is very good as well, coming across as competent and believable, which is also a credit to the writing. And, obviously, Christopher Plummer is Christopher Plummer. That dude could play the part of a doorknob and make it great.
This is a terrific script, a terrific cast, and using a little irreverence alongside the mystery and the occasional thrills goes a long way to make the film vastly more approachable. At 2:10, it could have been too long, but absolutely was not. It was a delight from start to finish, and Rian Johnson, who sometimes outthinks himself, this time put forth an unexpected gem of a movie. This is one of the best things he’s ever done, ranking right up there with directing “Ozymandias,” the Breaking Bad final season episode that stands as one of the finest television episodes of all all time.
Knives Out is also a film that possesses the rare quality of being very rewatchable, even once the secrets are known. In much the same way as you can revisit Clue, you will want to head back to the Thrombey estate and see what you might have missed in the background. Again, the story nails its conclusion, which had it not, I might not have even bothered to write this review, or the tone certainly would have been different.
This is a clever film, filled with rich performances and just enough absurdity and craziness to keep the interest level high amidst all the possibilities of getting lost in the story. Somehow, even with so many characters to keep track of and a fast-moving on screen investigation, it’s not hard to follow, and it’s such a blast to watch.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I saw the trailer, but the finished product exceeded all expectations and brings a high recommendation. The language is marginal, with a few things here and there and a few adult themes. Two scenes might be mild frights for the kids, but I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with anyone over the age of 11-12 viewing it.
You do have to pay attention, but the good news is, you’re going to want to anyway. Knives Out is a bit of a surprise, at least in just how good it is. I look forward to seeing this one again soon.