Movie review: “Knives Out” (2019)

“That’s some heavy duty conjecture…”

“It’s funny, [NAME REDACTED]. You skipped the funeral, but you’re early for the will reading.”

Movie review etiquette strongly advises I not reveal the killer whose identity lies at the heart of Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s delightful update for impatient, attention-addled contemporary audiences of the time-worn but still effective Agatha Christie “locked room” style of mystery. This is far easier said than done, since, in a fairly stunning twist that proves to be only the first of many the film will lob at us like a loaded ball machine ready for tennis practice, the culprit is actually identified around the halfway mark, yet the stately country manor house remains so conspicuously full of colorful, highly motivated suspects otherwise. Who among this snooty, sniping, self-interested rabble honestly couldn’t be a potential villain, and might they yet eventually still seize their moment, even with matters ostensibly settled? There is always the gnawing feeling with Knives Out that something else, something more, is at play here, that we don’t and, indeed, can’t possibly have all the clues yet, to say nothing of connecting them. This notion, which afflicts the viewer early, often, and, occasionally to the point of absurdity, is also always correct, right up to the moment the end credits roll and all involved can finally exhale. Also in near-perpetual question are the basic facts of the affair, and, at times, even the nature of the “crime” itself. Johnson takes palpable pleasure in continually complicating matters at the crowded estate in clever, if not insidious, ways, but also, by and large, seems to play fair with both his spectacular cast and his complicit audience, rewarding the rapt attention of the latter with the savory fates of the former. The trap that ends up ensnaring one and all is engaged and executed with acceptable, almost impenetrable logic and clockwork precision. 

The early moments of Knives Out find Johnson following the classic Agatha Christie blueprint to the letter, as his camera regards an imposing gothic manor nestled on a sprawling estate straight out of whatever the architectural equivalent of Central Casting is. Here assembled we encounter his large and colorful cast of persons of interest-to-be – nervously nursing their various rivalries and resentments and day-drinking to either dull the pain or sharpen their wits – thrust into the aftermath of a shocking death in the family that may or may not be murder. They are the kinfolk retinue of the late Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), bestselling mystery writer and scion of the deliciously named publishing empire Blood Like Wine, who was found, a few days prior, the morning after his 85th birthday party, in his upstairs quarters with his throat slit. The ongoing investigation serves as our simultaneous introduction to both Harlan’s menagerie of surviving children/grandchildren and the grievances that fuel them. Many of these first glances take the form of interwoven snippets from individual police interviews, which is a sly and effective narrative device, and does a wonderful job of not only introducing the principals but contextualizing and personalizing them. Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s eldest child, seeks to promote harmony of a sort within the family, so long as her catbird perch in the pecking order is neither questioned nor threatened. Her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), occupies the same page as his wife, if a much lower rung. Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), runs the publishing company, which is either a sacred charge or just above monkey work, depending on the interviewee account. Linda and Richard’s son (Chris Evans), cheekily nicknamed “Ransom”, is the proverbial black sheep, irreverent, inappropriate, and forever at odds with his old school grandfather, including on the evening just preceding his death. 

As the interviews ramp up, from a wicker lounge interrogation chair in Harlan’s study unsubtly situated as the artistic focal point of a radial swarm of only possibly decorative knives – imagine the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones exploding outward, but instead of its ornamental cutlery dispersing, each piece dramatically turning its point back toward the seat and there hanging suspended in mid-air, poised to inflict one of 1000 cuts on its occupant – additional principals join the fray, sporting sympathetic words and fidgety postures often at noticeable odds with each other. There’s Harlan’s flighty daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), already hanging onto her status in the family by a thread, and her daughter (Katherine Langford), who, given the course of recent events, may have to finance her own expensive college education very soon. There’s also Walt’s weird, antisocial son (Jaeden Martell), about whose online proclivities breathless half-speculation and barely filtered invective rages. Then there’s Harlan’s loyal nurse (Ana de Armas), his gossipy housekeeper (Edi Patterson), and even his own invalid mother, who probably is neither as harmless or oblivious as she seems. Through it all, as the police inspector (LaKeith Stanfield) dutifully collects information, we (and they) can’t help but notice an ostentatious figure sitting in the back of the room, casually plinking high-register piano notes whenever he deems the inspector has abandoned a line of inquiry prematurely. This interloper turns out to be celebrated real-life detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig with a sub-Foghorn Leghorn accent and minimal additional restraint as a deeply intuitive if terminally loquacious man so intoxicated by the sound of his own voice that he sometimes involuntarily surrenders his other faculties in response, much as a garden variety drunk might. This house well exceeds the FDA’s recommended allotment of combined self-regard. Just being a fly on the wall provides high entertainment.

Despite boasting a cracking ensemble of players that includes notables like James Bond, Laurie Strode, Sonny Crockett, General Zod, and Captain America, Knives Out still carves out more than sufficient time to focus on its true stars. First and foremost is the Thrombey mansion itself, a mahogany riot of tasteful architectural overkill, which, like all the world’s best status symbols, seems to have emerged fully formed as an eccentric manifestation of its owner’s id. Here are some truly expansive, well-manicured grounds around which one might slink on misty evenings, with guard dogs to dodge, acres of foliage made for stashing incriminating tools and vehicles, and muddy goat paths up to the house with a gift for almost perfectly preserving footprints. Inside the manor, there are grand parlors, sitting rooms, and drawing rooms galore, piled one atop another like a game of Clue sprung to life, complete with creaky staircases, hidden windows, and trellises custom made for an impromptu hasty ascent and/or desperate escape. Hitchcock would have loved this house, and, indeed, made an attempt or two at conjuring his own version, albeit on a necessarily smaller scale. Ana de Armas, channeling Jennifer Connelly in the “luminous ingenue” mode that seemingly defined the first two-thirds of her to date 35-year acting career, is the unlikely human lead, terrific and sympathetic in the role of Marta, the dutiful eldercare nurse of humorously indeterminate Latin descent who finds herself immediately indispensable to the investigation quite against her will, Blanc having observed correctly that no other Thrombey or Thrombey-adjunct would be better naturally placed to know the house and family’s bevy of secrets.  

But it’s writer-director Rian Johnson whose name looms largest on the Knives Out marquee, and with good reason. Having already established impressive bona fides as a devious plotter alchemically tinkering with the tricky genres of hard sci-fi (Looper), sci-fi spectacle (Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi), and, ahem, High School Film Noir (Brick), Johnson here graduates to a whole new level of promise and prominence, finally finding a character, in Harlan Thrombey, with his squirming, squawking relations, and the riveting circumstances surrounding his demise, who thrills in playing games as much as he does, all but challenging him in the process to devise the perfect accompanying puzzle with which to tantalize and perplex us. Johnson’s response is a smashing success, if not altogether airtight, and tremendous fun throughout, well-written, fast-paced, beautifully staged, and impeccably constructed, featuring a troop of engaged, accomplished actors connecting and colliding with Tony-worthy stagecraft, if all the physical grace of spent bbs in a paintball match. You can tell Johnson the craftsman is having fun, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Evans gleefully treats “Ransom” as the first stop on a whistle stop tour of future roles intended to bury Captain America, while Craig’s droll Southern caricature is the anti-Bond on purpose, though the actor is so personally amused by Blanc’s blowhard gravitas – effectively turning him into the detective equivalent of Big Trouble in Little China’s blustery goofball lead Jack Burton – that we can’t help but follow suit. I’ve only covered about fifteen minutes of Knives Out here in any depth, on purpose, for its many pleasures are intended for the screen. I couldn’t possibly expound or improve on any of them, rather just encourage you to experience them yourselves. Johnson’s playful concoction is the cinematic equivalent of a compulsive page-turner – one in and of which the Grand Dame herself would’ve very likely indulged and approved – with no pretense to be anything other than what it is, a clever yarn, a colorful whodunit, and a great time at the movies. 

“Knives Out” (2019) 3.5/4 stars

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