‘Knives Out’ Review
“I suspect ‘fow-uhl’ play.” So states the renowned and poetically named private detective, Benoit Blanc. Of course, when best-selling author Harlan Thrombey supposedly commits suicide after his 85th birthday party by slashing his own throat with a knife, something more sinister (you know, like…murder) must be considered. The violin playing over the opening shots of Knives Out, in the palatial Thrombey Manor, teases us with nostalgia. These thoughts fade quickly as we begin to meet the players.
Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (a quite funny Noah Segan) seem merely to be crossing their T’s in the suicide investigation as they dutifully meet with each family member for a statement. It’s this progression of questioning that introduces us to the year’s most colorful ensemble cast. Patriarch Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) scheming heirs-in-waiting include: his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), happy to remind you of her success as a self-made businessperson; Linda’s smarmy husband Richard (Don Johnson); their renegade son Ransom (Chris Evans) who arrives a bit later; Harlan’s son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) who ‘runs’ the family publishing business; Harlan’s ex-daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a self-help guru who has a secret side gig; grandkids Meg (Katherine Langford), preppy social media troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and Donna (Riki Lindhome of “Garfunkel and Oates”); and Harlan’s mother Greatnana (Dallas’ own K Callan). Two key non-family members are the housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) who finds Harlan’s body, and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s friend and only real confidante.
Writer-director Rian Johnson has put together a diverse career with such films as indie breakout Brick (2005), science fiction hit Looper (2012) and of course, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2018). With this latest, he shows a real flair with a rare comedic whodunit and manages to perfectly execute his twisted script of twisted personalities. Think of this as Agatha Christie meets Clue via The Royal Tenenbaums. The overall mangled morality of this entitled family becomes crystal clear as we get to know each. Johnson presents many familiar elements for fans of the mystery genre (the dark mansion, the creepy line-up of hangers-on, the red-herring clues and missteps), and most impressively, he blends those with many creative and surprising moments…some that will have you believe you have it figured out. But even if you do, the long and winding road is an utter blast.
Even with that deep and talented cast, it’s Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc and Ana de Armas as Marta who stand out. They have the most screen time and neither waste a moment. Mr. Craig’s purposefully comedic southern drawl completes the film’s most memorable character, in fact, one of the year’s most memorable characters. Ms. de Armas finally finds a role to take advantage of her skill. Nurse Marta has a lie-detecting reflux gag that is not just valuable to the case, but also vital to the loudest audience reaction during the film. Mr. Craig and Ms. de Armas will also appear together in the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die.
During the reading of the will, director Johnson brings in Star Wars stalwart Frank Oz (best known as Yoda) to play the family attorney, while another scene features one of the all-time great character actors (and Roger Ebert favorite) M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple). Mr. Johnson also offers a unique spin on classism and the 1%, including a running gag about Marta’s nation of origin.
Johnson’s regular team is in top form here: Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Film Editor Bob Ducsay, and composer Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin). Another deserving of mention is Costume Designer Jenny Eagan, who matches threads with personality about as effectively as we’ve seen, and Production Designer David Crank, who creates the ideal mansion of secrets. This film is wickedly clever and barrels of fun. There may not have been a more purely entertaining movie this year…and it’s been a terrific year for movies. Just remember: “My house. My rules. My coffee.”