Updated: Feb 9, 2020
A well-crafted murder mystery is less about the destination than it is about the journey. Yeah, we want to know whodunit, but the clues, atmosphere, suspense and colorful suspects are what make us care. There are so many great mysteries where the least interesting aspect is the solution to the case. The trick is to make everything else so captivating that the identity of the killer is beside the point. The murder mystery Knives Out is a rare example of one that has the atmosphere, the suspense, the structure, a delightful cast of characters and then also sticks the landing with a satisfying conclusion. It is so confidently written and directed, with a great pace, amusing dialogue, clever plotting and energetic performances. This is the type of movie where you just go for the ride, enjoying the craziness along the way. We go to the cinema to be entertained. This is one of the most entertaining movies of the year.
Harlan Thrombey is a beloved, and very wealthy, writer of mystery novels. His entire family relies on him to give them jobs and financial support. On the day after his 85th birthday party, which they all attended, he is found dead, his throat slit in his study. It is initially ruled a suicide, yet renowned private detective Benoit Blanc has his doubts. Everyone is a suspect.
That synopsis basically covers the first ten minutes of its 125 minute length (not including the end credits). Then the twistiness begins. There is a lot of it, some expected, some playing on those expectations, so I will not discuss the plot. What I will talk about is the way writer/director/producer Rian Johnson handles his material. He sets up situations where you think you know what is really going on, then he reveals it, only to stack more revelations on top on them. The plot holds up when it is all over, shedding additional light on small moments throughout. Still, it is the individual moments that make this so fun: insult battles between family members, flashbacks that do not show as much as they seem to (or maybe more than they seem to), deductions that move things forward without ever feeling like exposition and Johnson’s ability to make it always feel as if we understand the history between the characters, even without much set up. I have enjoyed Johnson’s work in the past (especially Brick and Looper, though The Last Jedi was also quite good), but this is definitely his best screenplay thus far.
The writing is very smart and witty and will probably get most of the praise. However, his direction should get some love as well. It is a lot of style, with enough substance to keep things constantly moving. Knives Out is surprisingly funny. While some of that comes from the performances (which I will get to soon), several of his directorial touches help. His framing gets laughs, as do several perfectly-timed reaction shots. As usual for the genre, the narrative does hide stuff from the audience; still, it is all in plain sight. We just do not always know what it is we are looking at. I never felt like I was being messed with merely to trick me. Johnson is constantly sure of what he is doing, making it easy to sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
A large part of that show are the actors, diving fully into the characters, giving them intrigue and putting a humorous spin on the stereotypes. Daniel Craig plays the celebrated investigator with an exaggerated southern accent and an intense curiosity about the case. It is fun to see his confidence tangle with the certainty that he has no idea what is going on. Some may find his mannerisms annoying; I found them hilarious. Craig really goes for it, toeing the line between Sherlock Holmes parody and serious detective work. Chris Evans also seems to be having a jolly time as the obnoxious grandson of the victim, laughing at his relatives’ struggles. He creates a character who is entertaining to watch, even if you can easily see why his family unanimously hates him. It is refreshing to see him play an arrogant jerk after years of seeing him mainly as a superhero.
The rest of the cast is filled with talented actors such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, LaKeith Stanfield (underused as a lieutenant, but able to sneak in the occasional good line), Ana de Armas and Christopher Plummer. They all do a lot with a little, an important skill in a big ensemble. Plummer strikes an imposing figure in flashbacks as Harlan, with everyone else being seen as loving or greedy, depending on who is telling the story. Curtis and Shannon, as his children, and de Armas, as his nurse, provide welcome emotion, and Collette brings extra laughs as his flighty daughter-in-law. It is mostly broad characterizations, but that was the perfect choice for this material.
Knives Out is exciting, compelling and consistently entertaining. I want to see it again, not because the ending makes me rethink the action, just because it was a really good experience. It has mystery, drama and comedy, each in exactly the right doses. It is a tremendous time with a strong cast. I have said that this time of year, multiplexes are packed with either spectacle or awards bait. I suppose this falls in the former category, though the spectacle is less visual than verbal. But what a wonderful spectacle.
4½ out of 5
Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc
Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera
Chris Evans as Ransom Drysdale
Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Drysdale
Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey
Don Johnson as Richard Drysdale
Toni Collette as Joni Thrombey
LaKeith Stanfield as Lieutenant Elliott
Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson