Mysteries and heist films work best when they both trick an audience and leave enough bread crumbs for perceptive viewers to guess at the workings of the plot. Savvy moviegoers make it very difficult for filmmakers to fool people these days. When it happens, such an experience resonates with folks and compels them to spread the movie suggestion by word of mouth. Knives Out ranks as just that kind of film. Although I have a few misgivings with the plot, I simply can’t deny how much fun it was to watch this mystery unfold. Knives Out mixes equal parts Clue and Memento for an exciting howdunit more than a whodunit.
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi) needed a hit after the mixed response to the last Star Wars movie. He gambled everything on Knives Out, and that bet more than paid off. When best-selling mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) winds up dead the day after his 85th birthday, local police and renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) interview the family members to investigate what happened. Was Harlan murdered? If so, who did it and how? Through the meetings with the attendees at Harlan’s party, Blanc learns that children Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) fought for his attention (and his money) along with daughter-in-law Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) and grandson Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans). Everyone’s a suspect with a motive, yet nobody has so far been charged. Central to all of the goings-on in the family mansion, Harlan’s nurse and companion Marta (Ana de Armas of Blade Runner 2049) guides Blanc through the drama and toward a possible explanation for Harlan’s departure.
I love this cast. Even the actors for the smallest roles were chosen carefully. Undoubtedly, de Armas deserves the most praise in this breakout role that challenges her acting skills. Upon a second viewing, watch her every expression and movement to see her subtlety. People might go either way with Craig and his accent and deliberate way of speaking that make him like a Southern Columbo. He won me over from his first appearance. He spouts some memorable dialogue like his description of the reading of a will like “a community theater production of a tax return.” Further comments lead to colorful descriptions of the police and an assessment of the Thrombeys that leads to the film’s title. I can’t remember the last time that Don Johnson had such a meaty role; other directors should take note. I’m not sure why Australian actress Collette adopted a Valley Girl way of speaking, but it’s a testament to her acting abilities and long list of character accents and personas over the years. K Callan plays an older lady almost like a prop than a character because I swear that she never moves other than to briefly speak or blink. For another mystery, see if you can figure out where Joseph Gordon-Levitt fits into the film.
There are so many great elements in Knives Out. The top-notch production design results in a mansion filled with detailed props like Harlan’s books and lots of woodwork and eye candy, especially the Game of Thrones-like sculpture made completely of knives. Speaking of blades, the sharp objects have multiple purposes here, including such mundane tasks like opening a letter or cutting food. You’ll notice more of such details if you see the movie again. Characters lie like crazy, and Johnson deals with that by physically showing different versions of events as culled from their memories. Even the painting of Harlan that appears multiple times seems to change like those famous artworks in The Haunted Mansion at the Disney theme parks. Was Harlan smiling or leering? I mentioned Memento (one of my favorite movies), and Knives Out delivers that kind of experience as you quickly try to put the pieces of information into a coherent outline as Blanc describes them or think about it later after you leave the theater.
I wish that I didn’t find things to criticize. Knives Out still makes my list of favorites of the year, but I can’t ignore some glaring issues. Chief among them is a character trait on which the revelations of the entire mystery hang or at least turn, and I just didn’t buy it. With a few small changes, Johnson could have eliminated my misgivings. In a story that takes place in Massachusetts, where are the accents? The only real accent in the film belongs to Blanc, and we don’t even get some of the lazy Kennedy or fake Boston accents in the characters. They might as well have been in New York or Connecticut. A lot of the plot twists could have been foiled by interruptions or chance, so does the plot really hold together? I would say yes, but others might disagree. Movies make will readings dramatic, yet in most cases, these are non-events in family deaths. Blanc’s quote pokes fun at them, so like the Wilhelm scream, Johnson may have felt compelled to include one anyway.
If Knives Out proves anything, we need more original movies. With so many sequels and adaptations filling theaters, a film like this brings people back to theaters as much as the blockbusters. I especially look forward to other original films by Johnson as much as I can’t wait for more from Jordan Peele after Get Out and Us. Pay attention to every detail… or don’t; either way, this mystery tinged with humor will leave you with a smile on your face and an immediate desire to discuss with friends what happened over a meal or coffee with your wits out.