Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is by far the most playful mystery I’ve seen this decade, skillfully walking the line between ode and original. It tinkers with the mechanics of the genre, finding just the right twists to exploit and quirks to insert. The script stirs together brilliantly vicious characters, all playing nasty enough for everyone to be a suspect. The theme plays with the current climate of heated politics with an eat-the-rich vibe throughout. But, more importantly, it’s just so damn fun.
Who Killed Harlan?
The morning after his birthday, famed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study. Suicide? That’s what the initial report says but there’s more to this story that suggests murder. That is what private eye Benoit Blanc thinks, played by Daniel Craig with a brilliant bayou accent. He has reason enough to believe someone in the house that fateful night may be the murderer. Everyone has a motive.
The brash and cackling Ransom Thrombey (Chris Evans) is bitter about being kicked out of the will but also enjoys his family going nuts on each other. Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) is very dismayed by the whole situation she’d rather not talk about it. Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) is really hoping he’ll take ownage of Harlan’s book empire in the will, desperate that he can hold onto that wealth. Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) is a new-age stuffy liberal who perfectly clashes with dated conservative values of Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson). And Harlan’s caregiver of Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) seems suspiciously silent after the murder.
An Eccentric Ensemble
Who committed the murder will not be revealed here (obviously). What I can reveal is the remarkable work of the cast at play. Armed with a devilishly sharp script, every character is a hoot to follow with cunning chemistry. Consider how Craig takes a rather darkly delight in solving the case, giving off a mild unease among the suspects. He’s having too much fun in a role where he boasts a Southern drawl. Evans plays against his usual likable persona as the smirking antagonizer of his crumbling family. When they all seem to snipe with vicious words, he can one-up any line.
Michael Shannon also has an amazing ability to seem like both a frustrated figure and an intimidating presence. Consider a scene where he tries to boast about his power by marching forward with his cane, though he’s armed with little financially. Don Johnson is almost too good as that bloated and bearded dad who just can’t wait to make his MAGA dinner speech. Though Toni Collette shines in her contention, she’s also hilarious in her glee. Consider her first meeting with Blanc where she speaks of how he knows him; “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you. You’re famous!”
Rian Johnson has written a script that is equal parts witty and blunt. This is mostly present in the dialogue that balances between being amusingly intelligent to savagely scathing. Craig will at one point equate solving this case to the structure of a donut with donut holes. Curtis will speak with aggravation towards the police about the murder of her father with quiet anger. And Evans will flat-out tell his family to “Eat shit.”
But what should be noted, without revealing the mystery, is that politics come into play. Johnson makes no attempts to hide his story away from the troubling online discourse or the political tensions on immigration. Both play prominent roles and those hoping the film will be an escapist vacuum may be dismayed. Those willing to let the film run with the current, however, will be stunned to discover an astute and brilliant mystery.
Yes, it wants you to harp on eating the rich, a theme most vocal in this year’s movie scene. Although there are plenty of great films on this subject (Ready or Not), this one is perhaps the most playful on the matter. The politics shape the story but doesn’t veer off course from the twisty mystery at hand, always devoted to the genre.
Although Knives Out does showcase many odes to the murder mystery, including blatant nods to Murder She Wrote, it still has enough teeth to be a darkly comedic mystery all its own. There are enough clues and twists to keep the audience guessing and surprised throughout. The cast brings their A-game, especially for actors that shine in only a handful of scenes, such as Plummer having a ball. As both an atmospheric murder mystery and a biting jab at the times, this is a genuinely entertaining picture that is sure to go down as the most notable of modern whodunnits. I know that film genre hasn’t exactly been prolific in the 21st-century but it has certainly set the bar high.
A brilliantly sharp and savage murder mystery that both plays with the genre and weaves its own originality.
- Fantastic Cast
- Fast-paced and Smart Editing
- Engaging and Twisty Mystery
- Winks a Little Much at the Genre
- Overt Politics Perhaps Too On-The-Nose