'Knives Out' Review: Rian Johnson's Murder Mystery Tour
Harlan Thrombey, beloved murder-mystery author, lies dead, having just celebrated his 85th birthday. Who will inherit the Thrombey literary empire, and is there something suspicious about his apparent suicide? Eccentric detective Benoit Blanc is on the case.
This is the long and short of Rian Johnson’s vibrant homage to the classic Agatha Christie whodunit and it wastes no time in getting off the ground and running. It’s this speed and Johnson’s keen awareness of the strengths and limitations of the genre, as well as some inspired casting decisions, that make Knives Out a brilliant success.
Rian Johnson is best known for breathing fresh air into Star Wars, with Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, but he was once seen as the gifted young indie director who made the idiosyncratic high-school-noir Brick. This was followed by the con-game oddity that is The Brothers Bloom and the wobbly time-travel thriller Looper. Notable too that Johnson is also responsible for directing what could arguably be called Breaking Bad’s best episode: The Fly. All of these works, some better than others, exude an inventive modern approach to the genre that defines Johnson’s touch.
Enter Knives Out, an extension and clear demarcation of all of Johnson’s talents without any of the flaws. While the genre itself might hint more at Johnson’s earlier works, the best reference here is The Last Jedi. What initially looks like a retread of a famous and beloved murder mystery becomes twisted with a fresh perspective that at once honors the original form, while quietly updating the material to better a fit a new generation. Knives Out is certainly a classic whodunit much like The Last Jedi is certainly a Star Wars film, and in both instances, the bold and surprising digressions from the beaten path are charged by the political realities of today.
Outside of Johnson’s deft touch, Knives Out is bolstered by a cast to make any director jealous. From Christopher Plummer to Toni Collette to Michael Shannon to Jamie Lee Curtis, the list of names goes on. Flashy performances abound and everyone takes a more than a few bites at the scenery but the blistering pace keeps us swerving from one star to another building a pyramid of absurdity that is topped by a relentlessly delightful Daniel Craig playing the detective. Craig’s version of a southern drawl might at first remind some of Michael Scott doing a Murder Mystery in The Office, and yet, Craig’s performance oozes such energy and charm it’s perfectly easy to get swept up in it.
All this manic energy is grounded by Ana de Armas in a breakthrough performance playing Marta Cabrera, Thrombey’s nurse, and our central protagonist. Marta tethers us to an emotional reality that feels intimate and substantial – essential in a film of such absurd proportions. We parse through the Thrombey-clan through Marta which allows us to experience this absurd world from within a character who is both outside the confines of the family, as well as apart from the detectives at work. de Armas, who was the highlight of Blade Runner 2049 (playing Ryan Gosling’s holographic AI), gives a performance here that is at once deeply empathetic and yet just as playful as that of her co-stars.
This delicate balance of perspective and distance is crystallized in a beautiful sequence that depicts Marta coming home from the grandeur of Thrombey’s mansion, to a working-class apartment where she sits down with her mother to watch an episode of Murder She Wrote dubbed in Spanish. For a second, the world of the Thrombey’s, with their voracious greed, resentment, and pettiness, melts away, and so does Knives Out. It’s a moment of razor-sharp clarity, the world we exist in, at once less decadent and burdened by material realities, yet infinitely more caring, beautiful, and hospitable pierces out through the screen. Yet, this escape is illusory, Marta and the Thrombey’s exist in a single intertwined reality, and Johnson coyly but pointedly spells this connection out with blood – hinting at the darker socio-political realities that exist just outside of the theater.
For a mystery that lingers over two hours, no section feels sluggish or unnecessary, and just when the deliberate detective work and interrogations begin tire, Johnson raises the pace and ramps up the action. If any faults could be found it would be in the second half, which like most mystery novels begins to deflate once the mechanisms reveal themselves. Even then, it seems tedious to nitpick at a film so thoroughly enchanting and well crafted. Much like Wes Craven with Scream, Johnson approaches the genre with emphatic adoration, and while his subversions are clever and modern themes ferociously sharp, it’s ultimately his love and respect for the form that shines through the brightest. All that’s left to wonder is when, not if, detective Benoit Blanc will return, given that Daniel Craig is hanging up his Walther PPK.
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