To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, it appears that all you need to make a movie is Daniel Craig and a knife. Even better if Daniel Craig has a gentlemanly Southern drawl and the knife is at the throat of Christopher Plummer‘s Harlan Thrombey, a crime novelist found slain in his labyrinthian estate home. In Rian Johnson‘s Knives Out, this set up makes for a mystery that is flawed, but still thoroughly enjoyable.
Harlan’s death at first appears to be a cut and dry suicide (or rather, cut and wet — throat-slitting is a bloody affair, after all). He’s discovered in his room with the knife in his hand, no signs of having fought off an attacker, and blood spatter indicates there was no one else in the room at the time of his death. But all is not what it seems: Craig’s Benoit Blanc is a private detective who has been hired by a mystery patron to investigate whether or not a crime was committed. To do so, he must pull apart the threads of the Thrombey clan: a family as collectively dysfunctional as they are individually peculiar. The only one among them with a true sense of decency isn’t a Thrombey at all, it’s Ana de Armas‘s Marta, Harlan’s nurse and closest confidant. She’s good for the sake of being good, but this quality could be tested as the Thrombey family pull no punches in vying for Harlan’s inheritance.
The ensemble cast is comprised of incredibly gifted actors, including Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette. Unfortunately, their characters rarely feel fleshed out. Instead, they all stand in for a type of character that we’re accustomed to seeing in stories about rich, dysfunctional families. Take, for example, Collette’s Joni, a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle guru and Johnson’s Richard, a Boomer instructing the youth to get off his lawn when he’s not cheating on his wife. Rian Johnson is skilled enough at writing comedies that even when the family dynamics are cliched they’re still enjoyable, but with a cast this talented, it’s hard to not feel that the characters aren’t all they could have been.
The character with the most depth is Marta and this affords de Armas the opportunity to further display her abilities. She’s endearingly earnest but not too cutesy and her performance shouldn’t go unnoticed. However, as good as she is, it’s undeniable that Craig is the life force of Knives Out. Benoit Blanc is a suspender-wearing, donut-metaphor wielding, Sondheim-singing delight and he injects the film with energy. As the plot becomes increasingly twisted, he’s the character who guides us along and who keeps up the momentum.
The drawback of the film is that, as much as some of the characters are fun, it is intent on constantly being relevant. Certain references — including an out of place Baby Driver joke — age poorly before the movie is even over. Knives Out is also chock full of political references as the various generations of the Thrombey family do battle over bleeding-heart liberalism and alt-right beliefs. The film needn’t be divorced from an understanding of the climate it’s being released into, but it all comes across as rather cloying. Johnson’s politics are laid bare as he has no qualms about indicting the wealthy Thrombey family members who, even when they seem well-meaning, will always sell out their idealism for their personal gain. His empathy and support are firmly and clearly with Marta, a working-class immigrant with an undocumented mother. She’s a hero with a big heart who is easy to root for. None of this is bad, and many will surely appreciate Johnson’s political messages, but it can also veer into being too obvious and aggressive. A film so desperate to be timely loses qualities that could have made it timeless.
Knives Out is Johnson’s first followup to 2017’s The Last Jedi and there’s something exciting about seeing his style become more constrained. Rather than working with the whole galaxy, in Knives Out he’s at times confined to the Thrombey manor and he knows how to imbue the location with a sense of personality. The character of the home and some quick pans early-on within the house have a Wes Anderson-esque feel to them, but this film is decidedly (and enjoyably) less twee than Anderson’s work. As much as Johnson was a breath of fresh air in the world of Star Wars, this serves as a reminder that he knows how to work with Earth-bound narratives, too.
Though far from a flawless film, Knives Out is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Its central mystery is well constructed and Craig is so gifted and well utilized that he manages to overshadow some of the one-dimensional characters. Ultimately, the strongest aspect of the film is that it’s just so goddamn refreshing to see a considerable budget and a stacked ensemble cast in an original film that stands on its own two feet without any source material. With any luck, as he embarks on the post-Star Wars period of his career, Rian Johnson has more mysteries up his sleeve.