I haven’t been doing a lot of contemporary movie reviews here lately, mostly because I feel like you can get those pretty much anywhere, and from folks far more articulate than I. Nonetheless, when one of my most anticipated movies of the year comes out and fully delivers on all of my expectations, well, then it’s definitely spending some time and words on.
I’ve been a fan of Rian Johnson ever since his debut feature Brick, a neo-noir with a high school setting that is smart, articulate, full of twists, and as moody, atmospheric and inevitable as any example of the genre. Unfortunately, though it has gained something of a cult status in the years since its release, it remains to my mind highly underseen even though the director has gained in prominence since then, especially with his foray into the world of the mega-blockbuster franchise world with Star Wars VII, despite the… shall we say “mixed” reaction garnered by that installment.
Still, no matter how you may feel about that particular film, it’s great to see Johnson returning to a genre that he clearly loves and is much more comfortable in, and to see him bring a sense of flair and humor to the proceedings that makes it feel quite unique while still adhering to most of the conventions that one would expect from what is essentially a locked-room mystery.
If you’ve seen the trailers for Knives Out, then you already know everything you need to (and honestly want to) know before going into the movie. Thrombey family patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday celebration. Though it has officially been declared a suicide, a mysterious someone has paid renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig sporting one of the most outrageous “where exactly is he supposed to be from?” accents ever committed to the screen) to look further into the death which he soon determines may be the result of something more than it seems.
A week after the party, the family and staff at the mansion are called back to the Thrombey mansion, and, of course, it becomes quickly apparent that almost everyone present had some sort of motivation to want the old man dead.
And that’s exactly as far as I’m willing to go in discussing the plot, because you definitely need to see this one unfold for yourself.
According to reports, Johnson has actually been working on the idea and script for Knives Out ever since he made Brick, and it shows, because it is tightly plotted and delivers both gut-punches and laughs in equal measure and at just the right time. In a lot of ways, I would say that the delay (he had initially planned to make this right after his time-travel epic Looper) (hmmm… can one call a movie as intimate and tail-chasing as Looper “epic”? Well, I did, so I guess so,) was a very good thing, because not only did it give him time for extra polish, but the movies in between gave him the prestige to not only get big studio backing, but also to gather an exquisite and extremely talented ensemble cast including Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Colette, Lakeith Stanfield, and what should be, if there is any justice a household-name-making turn by Ana de Armas.
Oh, and just for the record, I should also mention that muppet-master Frank Oz also puts in an unexpected cameo as the family’s lawyer.
One interesting aspect of Knives Out that I haven’t seen discussed much, probably mostly because it doesn’t really pertain to the plot, but instead simply adds yet another layer to the characters and to the interplay between them is that Johnson’s script also manages to interweave more than a bit of politics into his script, with characters that lean (sometimes so far they almost look like those Weather Channel reporters trying to stay upright in the midst of a hurricane) both to the far-right and far-left of the spectrum, but he manages to do it so deftly that it doesn’t at all distract from the proceedings. Instead, it works to not only reveal more about where these characters are coming from and at the same time makes one wonder whether they will hold true to the ideals they espouse or betray themselves when the chips are truly down.
Knives Out is full of twists and reveals, with great character work from all involved, and just the right amount of humor that it doesn’t fall into full-on parody mode, but instead maintains and supports the mystery that is at the heart of the film, and watching the film feels like watching a master magician at the top of his craft. Then we reach the finale, which is a terrific take on the “let’s get all of the suspects in one room and explain what’s been going on” trope that is a staple of the genre is equivalent to that moment where the illusionist says “remember at the start when I told you everything is not what it seems?” just before making the ultimate reveal and leaving you with your jaw on the floor. Fortunately, however, though you will definitely have been entertained, (and may have figured out the heart of the mystery before the movie spells it out for you, though you won’t care, because at that point it’s all about watching it play out) you won’t be left with that “what the hell happened?” feeling, because you will know that Johnson has played straight with you the whole time.
It’s just a bit early to start list-making. but if pressed, I would say that it’s highly likely that Knives Out will be a strong contender for my top 10 movies of the year list. Do I really need to give it any more of a recommendation than that?
Here’s your trailer: