Knives Out begins by getting straight to the point: the morning after his 85th birthday party with his larger family the successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is found dead in his study, and everyone is a suspect. Step up the private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who from the moment he shows up is obviously the smartest person in the room, to get to the bottom of this mystery and find the guilty party. It is a setup that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has had any experience with a whodunit mystery but, as director Rian Johnson showed with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he is perfectly capable of taking something extremely familiar and turning it on its head.
Most whodunits require an extensive and colorful cast of potential suspects to choose from and Knives Out certainly does not disappoint. Harlan’s large family includes Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), the self-described “self-made” oldest daughter who is not averse to borrowing money from her father’s extensive estate. There is also Walter (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s son who runs his father’s publishing company and isn’t making as much money as he would like. Joni (Toni Collette), is a “lifestyle guru” daughter-in-law who has managed to hang around, and have a toe dipped into the family’s wealth, despite her husband having passed away a long time ago. Even Harlan’s grandkids run the gamut of “rich people” awfulness from the irresponsible playboy Ransom (Chris Evans), the “dips*** alt-right troll” Jacob (Jaedan Martell), and the “SJW” and meaningless-degree-pursuing trust-fund kid Meg (Katherine Langford). Finally there is Marta (Ana de Amas), Harlan’s faithful nurse, the last one to see him alive and thus not immune from suspicion.
To reveal too much more would be to spoil the fun. What makes Knives Out such a delight is that Johnson is perfectly aware of the tropes of the whodunit mystery and in equal parts affirms and usurps those expectations, leading the viewer to always feel thrillingly off-kilter throughout. While listening to the “Blank Check” podcast recently (which you should too) co-host Griffin Newman postulated (and I paraphrase), “Directors seem to fall into two categories: They are either anthropologists or engineers.” Knives Out is perhaps the clearest example that Rian Johnson is an engineer, but an engineer who constructs elaborate Rube Goldberg machines that always seem on the verge of failing but never actually do. In Knives Out he seemingly revels in leaving you in suspense wondering if his topsy-turvy plot of a movie will actually land; a suspense that is replaced by the elation that comes when the movie finally comes to its thrilling conclusion.
Part of the whodunit genre’s downfall is that it’s pleasures are entirely derived by withholding information. Once the central mystery is uncovered however, there is usually very little reason to return to the story again especially if the story is littered with red herrings that go nowhere and a resolution that is less than satisfactory. As much as I love a good Agatha Christie novel, I have never felt compelled to return to one of her mysteries. Fortunately, and again without giving away too much of the plot, Knives Out manages to avoid this problem for several reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, this is a movie with pitch-perfect casting, with every secondary character gamely hamming up the screen and the central leads of Craig and de Amas giving this story its central thrust. Second and more importantly, Johnson does not lead us down any unnecessary red herrings; while not every development is directly connected to the movie’s central mystery, each new piece of information uncovered adds color and depth to the larger story. And finally Johnson’s smart script allows for layers, so that it is not merely a murder mystery but is also a contemporary indictment of the growing divide between the unique lives the ultra-rich live and the rest of us; it provides a timeless and biting satire that is worth returning to.
Knives Out represents a growing phenomenon: a pure popcorn entertainment flick that has absolutely no larger intellectual property attached to it and relies merely on its star-power wattage and the strength of its premise to draw the viewer in. The fact that it is currently doing so well in the box-office is a hopeful sign that maybe after a decade dominated by sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots, we might be entering a decade where studios may start remembering that there is nothing more thrilling for audiences than discovering something new. Of course, if they aren’t green lighting a new Benoit Blanc murder-mystery right now on the backs of this movie’s success, then why even make movies?
Running Time: 130 minutes
Directed by Rian Johnson
Written by Rian Johnson
Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Anas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz, K Callan, Noah Segan