Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Chris Evans
Knives Out is a delicious, twisted, witty murder mystery. The film, written and directed by Rian Johnson, manages at the same time to be both meta and self-aware but also satisfyingly old-school. Some of the actors play it straight while others seem to be in on the joke. At one point, a detective finally catches up with the runaways he is pursuing and declares: That was the dumbest car chase of all time. There’s mist, dogs, a large mansion, a superbly dysfunctional family and Daniel Craig, with a Southern drawl, as detective Benoit Blanc, who is described as the last of the gentleman sleuths. What’s not to love?
Within the first few seconds, we have a murder. Harlan Thrombey, best-selling, world-famous mystery writer and owner of a flourishing publishing company called Blood Like Wine Publishing, is found in his study with his throat slit. His children, their partners and kids had collected in his sprawling mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. We discover that each one has a strong motive to want him dead so whodunit? Johnson crams the frame with terrific actors – Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans – and then cheerfully observes them tearing into each other. Christopher Plummer, brimming with wisdom and weariness, plays Harlan. And the lovely Ana de Armas is Harlan’s Latina nurse Marta, who finds herself at the center of events. Or, as Benoit puts it: The donut, because it’s a case with a hole in the middle.
The jokes don’t flag even when the plot gets over-wrought. Underneath the laughs and the furious twists and turns, director Rian Johnson layers in social satire
Craig brings exactly the right blend of pomposity and intellect to Benoit. He gets some of the best lines in the film – at one point, he’s expounding about how his work is like Gravity’s Rainbow. When Marta says she hasn’t read Thomas Pynchon’s seminal novel, Benoit replies: Nobody has. The jokes don’t flag even when the plot gets over-wrought. Underneath the laughs and the furious twists and turns, Johnson layers in social satire. We repeatedly hear about Marta’s kindness and industriousness. It’s revealing that she is an immigrant. The rest, as Benoit says, are a pack of vultures at a feast. This includes a sullen teenage boy with alt-right politics. At one point, Benoit calls him the Nazi child. I laughed out loud.
The mansion, filled with statues, rugs and secret staircases, is also a looming presence. The production design by David Crank, the art direction by Jeremy Woodward and the set decoration by David Schlesinger is so ornate that you will want to see the film again just to take in the details – at one point, Benoit is sitting on a chair, which is embedded in a large circle made of knives. It’s fantastical but also hilarious. As is Harlan’s sinister portrait in which, of course, he’s holding a knife!
Knives Out has a sense of glee that’s infectious. It’s pleasurable and occasionally silly but it’s consistently fun. And that’s a real accomplishment.