A tried and true Hollywood staple that’s fallen by the wayside in modern times is the whodunnit. And it’s a crying shame, because, when done well, they’re a damn fine time. While I wasn’t a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, I appreciate the effort. When it comes to Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s new, modern-day riff on Agatha Christie, I appreciate the effort as well as the result, which is an absolute blast and one of the most entertaining movies of 2019.
To be honest, the mystery portion of Knives Out is rather middling. It’s solid and executed well enough, but it’s standard fare when it comes to the actual mechanics—like a game of Clue come to life. But in reality, the mystery is almost beside the point, almost window dressing. What sells the picture are the characters, and more specifically, the actors who play them. It’s a bonkers cast on paper, and on screen, they all deliver on their promise, bringing various eccentricities, foibles, and agendas to life. Johnson’s dialogue crackles, and the 130-minute run time blows past. And it includes maybe the only high-speed chase ever staged in a Hyundai.
It appears legendary mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) committed suicide the night of his 85th birthday party. But if he did, why did someone anonymously hire celebrated detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate? As one might assume, everything is not as it seems. The more the southern-fried gumshoe digs, the more twisted the tale becomes as Harlan’s contentious family bickers and bullies—each one had motive, means, and opportunity, as well as secrets, schemes, and deceit in their hearts.
There’s Harlan’s oldest daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband, Richard, (Don Johnson), and their spoiled son, Ransom (Chris Evans). Michael Shannon’s Walt, Harlan’s son, depends on his father’s publishing empire for his livelihood, and his son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), is an alt-right troll who disappears to the bathroom, “joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer.” Without Harlan, former daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), will be out in the cold. And fnally, we have Harlan’s trusted nurse and confidant, Marta (Ana de Armas), who everyone claims is part of the family, though they didn’t invite her to the funeral or actually know where she’s from.
Energetic and rollicking, Knives Out clips along as Benoit—with two local cops, played by LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan, the low-key MVPs of the movie—susses out the suspects. Craig should be required by law to put on an affected southern accent in a movie at least once every few years. And everyone works at the top of their game, equal parts funny and harrowing, welcoming and deceptive. Shannon bounces from goofy schlub to sinister and menacing; Evans has just the best damn time anyone’s ever had in a movie, playing against his Captain America virtues; and Curtis’ conniving eldest sibling bristles with plots.
In such a stacked ensemble, Marta stands out. She’s the ostensible protagonist, and the only one with Harlan’s true well-being and wishes driving her actions—she’s easily the only person worth rooting for. While every other character is engaging and amusing in their own right, she’s the only one with any emotional investment and with anything truly at stake aside from financial gain. De Armas is fantastic, subdued and restrained, she’s overwhelmed and under pressure, but also game and more than capable of handling herself amidst the chaotic fray.
[Related Reading: 'Knives Out' Trailer: Rian Johnson Returns With a Stacked Cast and a Throwback Murder Mystery]
Because it’s a Rian Johnson movie, Knives Out looks incredible. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin has filmed every one of Johnson’s movies, and it shows in a way that appears so effortless and natural. The primary setting is Harlan’s epic, elaborate mansion, full of unusual rooms, odd architecture, ominous and creepy affectations, strange artifacts, and more than a few secrets of its own—as one expects from the home of a famous mystery writer. The duo uses every nook and cranny and weird-ass bit of artwork to create an unsettling mood and aesthetic.
Knives Out feels destined to fill a similar role as Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel—nor does it try—but it does what it aims to do incredibly well. Johnson hits all the markers, and it’s competent, tight, and clever, showing off his deep knowledge and affection for the genre. But it’s the charisma of the actors, all working at a high level and having a damn good time, that propels the movie and make it special. A bit slight, and maybe not the most emotionally affecting film, the rewatch potential is through the roof—this is a movie that every time I stumble across on cable I’ll pause and watch at least for a scene or two. In short, Knives Out is one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year. [Grade: B+]