A near-perfect comedy whodunnit destined to become a classic.
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I didn’t think the big studios made movies like this anymore. A tightly scripted, lovingly-shot genre picture that consistently entertains from start to immensely-satisfying finish. Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, The Last Jedi), he and his team have made the most of a studio blank check to create a passion project both gorgeously realized and deeply entertaining. Johnson’s love for the genre is apparent in every frame and is further amplified by a talented, gung-ho cast. The delightfully twisty script is sure to surprise even the most seasoned crime fiction enthusiasts, and even if you somehow guess the ending the film’s sharp, subversive comedy will keep you entertained all the way through to the finale.
The story takes place, as many such stories do, within the cavernous chambers of an imposing Gothic mansion. The house is a shrine to mystery lore, and production designer David Crank has filled the residence with oodles of references and easter eggs worth spending hours poring over on home video. The house’s owner is celebrated mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose only regular visitor is his personal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas). Marta is a working-class daughter of immigrant parents but has developed a close father-daughter friendship with Thrombey. The morning after his sniping, freeloading offspring descend upon the house for Thrombey’s 85th birthday party, the housekeeper discovers him dead in his study. The cause appears to be suicide, but illustrious gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play. While Thrombey’s family bickers over inheritance, Blanc and two police detectives (Noah Segan and LaKeith Stanfield) conduct interviews with Marta and each of Thrombey’s relatives in an attempt to discern if a murder has taken place, and if so, who is to blame.
This all happens in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, but to divulge more would ruin the fun. Johnson’s wonderfully circuitous script is tightly layered, with each subsequent event building upon the last. The beauty of the script is that although complex, it never becomes so unwieldy that the audience has trouble following along. Johson smartly ensures each character in the large cast is unique and clearly defined so the audience can keep them straight as the plot unfolds. Nimble editing by Bob Ducsay subtly makes the viewer aware of key details without betraying the solution at the mystery’s core. And yet in the midst of this intricate narrative Johson also somehow manages to find time to inject heaps of charming, subversive humor. The entire Thrombey family serves as a satirical metaphor for everything from white privilege to late-stage capitalism and ant-immigrant racism. All of this complexity builds to a perfect, immensely satisfying conclusion in which no thread is left untied.
A dynamic script is nothing without a cast capable of bringing it to life, and Johnson has assembled a murderer’s row of stars keen to give it their all. Standout performances include Chrisopher Plummer as the no-nonsense Thrombey family patriarch; Michael Shannon as his flailing, ineffectual son Walt; and Ana de Armas as Marta, who also demonstrates some of the film’s best physical work. While it’s fun to see Chris Evans playing against his boy scout persona as the intractable family pariah Ransom, it feels as if the actor is reluctant to completely throw himself into the part. Toni Colette strikes the film’s biggest sour note as Joni, a thinly-sketched, airheaded parody of a GOOP-style influencer.
But even in a glittering cast such as this no star shines brighter than Daniel Craig as the Sherlock-of-the-Bayou Benoit Blanc. Taking on a delightfully absurd Foghorn Leghorn drawl, Craig goes full camp and demonstrates an affinity for comedic work rarely seen in his typical milieu of action-adventure beefcakes. The man is downright funny, and he commits to his character’s exaggerated grandiloquence and aw-shucks demeanor so fully that you can’t help but adore every moment he is on screen.
Knives Out is pure fun from top to bottom and is no doubt destined to become a classic. Writer-director Rian Johnson has shown extraordinary daring in releasing a whodunnit in this era of snarky internet know-it-alls — a demographic with which he has an abundance of experience. That he has single-handedly written a tight, smart, funny script with a large, illustrious cast and managed to bundle it all together using striking visuals and deft filmcraft is truly something to admire. Knives Out is a near-perfect comedy whodunnit, and a sheer delight from start to finish.