There was one thing that was overlooked in all the hoopla surrounding The Last Jedi: Rian Johnson is an awesome filmmaker. Since the release of his first film Brick back in 2005, Johnson has established himself as one of the better writer/director combos in mainstream filmmaking, bringing his brand of altering expectations to different genres. He offers a twist (or ten) on well-known templates, so whatever your expectations, odds are that you’ll exit his films having experienced something wildly different. For a whodunnit movie like Knives Out, this style is a near-perfect fit.
Knives Out begins as many murder mysteries do. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an acclaimed murder mystery writer and the wealthy figure head of an important family, has died, and a few detectives are on the scene to decipher whether or not the death was a result of foul play. The detectives, led by the venerable Daniel Craig sporting a wonderfully cartoonish accent, then take turns questioning members of the extended family and close friends about what took place the night of Harlan’s birthday party and eventual death.
As is tradition in such films, the characters are exceedingly eccentric and memorable. Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) and Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) are fiendishly cunning and tough (especially Curtis); Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) plays up the slightly air-headed free spirit cliché with glee; Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) owes all his success to Harlan’s writing as a leech who never sought to make his own legacy; and Ransom Drysdale, played by Chris Evans, has the name “Ransom”, which basically informs everything you need to know about his character. Rian Johnson expertly sets the stage, giving each character some sort of motive for murdering Harlan.
As in Johnson’s other films, the setup is a common one. We’ve all been here before: a prominent figure dies, and the culprit could be any one of the colorful characters on screen. But Johnson’s script is always operating on a meta level, simultaneously deconstructing the tropes of the genre while still offering some of the better parts of it. However, at times, he has a tendency to overwrite certain scenes, calling attention to the film’s (and his) knowledge of murder mystery explicitly, which is a nitpick that I’ve had with all of films. However, aside from these fleeting moments, Knives Out’s spin on the murder mystery genre really works.
The backstabbing, plotting, and mystery is all seen through the eyes of Marta, played by the always marvelous Ana de Armas. As Harlan’s personal caregiver, she’s always around the family, but clearly still a bit of an outsider. The family treats her very well and takes care of her, but as we quickly learn, the family views her as a second-rate citizen. One of the running jokes throughout the film is that members of the family can never remember what country Marta immigrated from. Is she from Bolivia, Uruguay, or Brazil? They certainly don’t know. These microaggressions permeate the script, a trait that is also obviously exhibited by Jaeden Martell’s character, who is clearly inspired by Johnson’s experiences in the aftermath of the release of The Last Jedi. These offhanded remarks quickly cue you into the fact that Knives Out is just as much about income inequality and class disparities as it is pulpy, rowdy fun.
I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the film Ready or Not, which is quickly becoming a favorite of many after its August release this year in the states. Ready or Not effectively Trojan-horsed a class discussion into a vibrant horror-comedy, similar to how Rian Johnson injects much commentary between insanely inspired instances of comedy and thrills. Each film expresses a fear from the upper class that their power is quickly fading. Along with Bong Joon-ho’s wickedly entertaining and momentous Parasite, these pressing issues seem to be on the minds of many great filmmakers in 2019.
And at the center of Knives Out is a fantastic female performance from Ana de Armas, who is nothing short of extraordinary. In contrast to all the actors around her hamming it up, she’s one of the few real people in the room, and also is the moral center of the story. Not only that, Rian Johnson has a great trick up his sleeve with the hilarious quirk that he prescribes to her character. I’ll save you the specifics and allow you to see it for yourself in all its glory.
The big winner of Knives Out is Rian Johnson, who puts some of our best working actors in positions to succeed every step of the way. Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc could be a bland caricature in the wrong hands, while in the hands of Johnson is a knowingly goofy – yet competent – trenchcoat-wearing PI archetype who has plenty of room to chew scenery. It’s amazing what a terrific balancing act Knives Out is; the actors have plenty of room to shine – aside from a few supporting characters who are just there for the laughs. It zips along at a good pace, keeping you in the dark until exactly the right moment. The film accounts for every detail; if something is mentioned in passing early on, you can expect it to become recontextualized later on.
As with any murder mystery, the best way to view it is by knowing as little as possible going in. With Johnson operating near the apex of his writing capabilities, there’s plenty of surprises to behold. So sit back, stop reading information on the film, and prepare yourself for one of the better original movies of 2019.
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With Knives Out, Rian Johnson spins another wildly entertaining story that defies genre tropes, all the while giving plenty of familiar faces a ton of room to do what they do best, reminding us why we love them all in the first place.
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