Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Comedy, Daniel Craig, Don Johnson, Drama, Frank Oz, Jaeden Martell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Katherine Langford, Knives Out, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Rian Johnson, Riki Lindhome, Toni Collette
The whodunit is a genre with a very finite amount of room to deviate from formula. The material is all there already- a single location, a sharp detective, a cast of potential suspects, and enough twists and turns to mask the actual killer before the climactic finale. Motivations don’t need to be that believable, and the clues have to have a certain amount of implausible theatricality, but what makes a great whodunit is the personality. This is what Knives Out delivers on- it’s self aware enough that it can engage with whodunit tropes in a meaningful way, while also offering a searing commentary of the egregiously rich.
After the famous mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found murdered after his 85th birthday, his family is called to their patriarch’s glamorous estate as the quirky detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) investigates the case. With a thick southern drawl and a selective memory of details, Blanc isn’t quite an all-out parody of a Hercule Peroit type investigator, but his mix of magnetism and slapstick make him impossible to not follow. Once again, Daniel Craig has proven to be an actor who is willing to make bold choices with his characters, and Blanc is in many ways a subversion of Craig’s inherent charisma.
Charisma is not a word I would neccessarily associate with rest of the cast, as each member of the Thrombey family is despicable in their own way. The film is inherently about a family that is being torn apart by jealousy and suspicion, and the cast is able to make each character memorable enough that their breakdowns are entertaining. You have Harlan’s youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), a spineless publisher of his grandfather’s novels who lives with his equally sniveling wife (Riki Lindhome) and their neo-Nazi son (Jaeden Martell), Walt’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a successful businesswoman who is partnered to her generally clueless husband Richard (Don Johnson), and Harlan’s high flying socialite daughter in law Joni (Toni Collette) and her self-indulgent Marxist daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). There’s not enough time for each character to go into a deep backstory, but each actor is able to manifest into a singularly reprehensible trait, and they each sling Rian Johnson’s killer one liners with ease.
The scene stealer is without a doubt Chris Evans as Linda and Richard’s son; not only does Evans’s noted star power make his appearance all the more pressing, but his character seems to be the only one that takes joy in watching his family turn on each other. Evans is having a blast, and the way his character throws off the investigation adds for a needed change of pace once the mansion starts to exhaust its clues.
But the heart of the film is Marta (Ana de Armas), the nurse of the elder Harlan that formed a bond with the acclaimed author. Marta is the heart of the film, and her genuine warmth and kindness isn’t just a good contrast to the spoiled, self indulgent upper class family, but an essential perspective. It would be fun to see a bunch of great character actors yell and pick each other apart for two hours, but having a sympathetic audience avatar is needed to actually care about the mystery, especially when you have as quirky of an investigator as Blanc.
Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who is well aware of his influences, and those familiar with his films Brick (a modern spin on the noir-film set in a high school) or Star Wars: The Last Jedi (a decontextualization of George Lucas’s original mythology) know he can spin a genre on its head. The meta commentary is fun here, but I appreciate how bold Johnson is with his commitment to the material- characters make bold revelations, speak candidly about their motivations, and the film’s resolution is so in line with Agatha Christie style stories that it’s almost campy. Campiness isn’t a bad thing though, and I think Knives Out proves that being old fashioned doesn’t mean antiquated, as the point in which revelations are made and the nature of the false alarms are still able to keep the audience guessing.
The trail of clues itself isn’t even that complicated, and I appreciate that the film holds Marta’s moral dilemmas with the same importance as it does the actual investigation. Perhaps I would’ve liked to see more of the bickering family, as they somewhat disappear during the second act, but this also may be a case in which less is more. It’s one of the most purely entertaining films of the year, one that will make you want to call out details as you see them and point out subtle character reactions in the background. Knives Out seems determined to go out of its way to entertain, and I can only conclude that its succeeds on that very noble intention. Grade: A-