[FANTASTIC FEST] "Knives Out" – Rian Johnson Slays the Whodunit (Non-Spoiler Review)

Knives Out is a masterpiece and one of the best films of 2019. Writer/Director Rian Johnson deftly weaves in so many of the tropes of the murder mystery genre, producing one that that not only stands at the top of the genre but also has a lot to say about where we are in 2019.

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Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a celebrated, wealthy murder mystery novelist who is found dead, apparently of suicide, the morning after his 85th birthday. With his entire extended, dysfunctional family in the house, and several of them with motive to want to see him dead, it's the perfect set-up for a murder mystery.

[FANTASTIC FEST] "Knives Out" - Rian Johnson Slays the Whodunit (Non-Spoiler Review)
Knives Out: Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc. Image courtesy Lionsgate
Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a detective of some renown, who sizes up the family and their motives, aided by Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's longtime nurse. She not only knows all of the family's secrets, she possesses a unique talent in her inability to lie. Not even going to spoil that bit of plot, as you should discover it for yourself, as you should actually go into the film not knowing much. The plot and character introductions come so perfectly woven you should just go in and let it wash over you.

So instead of telling you about the characters (I'll let the film do that, or you can check out these amazing character posters), let's just discuss the actors' performances. First, Craig is amazing. He carries this role with such aplomb and panache. Benoit Blanc is immediately one of the great film detectives and you could easily see him being brought back over and over a la Hercule Poirot. He's also incredibly funny, which is a nice touch. Craig obviously understands the southern gentleman act is a little silly and plays that up well. But his performance is also nuanced. There's a long stretch of the film where it seems like he has no idea what is really going on, and we, as the audience, are dozens of steps ahead of him. It's a nice twist, and reminiscent of the more bumbling murder investigations by Columbo or Adrian Monk. But it's ultimately his internal motivations that end up revealing the keys to the case.

But the heart of Knives Out is actually Ana de Armas. In the same way that as JOI she provided a lot of the heart and deeper meaning of Blade Runner 2049, so too does she here provide something both classical and thoroughly modern. The conceit that she can only speak the truth draws from classical Greek myth, and like those archetypes it is a curse, not a gift. At the same time, she plants the film firmly in the 2019 zeitgeist. Placing a Latina home health care worker at the heart of the story, as Harlan's main confidante, she embodies these values of hard work, honesty, integrity– things we "Americans" love. But a child of immigrant parents, part of her existence has to live in the shadows, and she's still seen as "less than" by so many of the "real Americans." In a scene pivotal to the themes of the film but which has no bearing on the plot, the Thrombey family argues about immigration (and Trump!), both sides try to use her as an example, while she just wants to be left out of it. And yet this film isn't expressly political, but it is rooted explicitly in racial and class divisions present in 2019. And it's why de Armas, the hard working truth-teller, is the Rosetta stone for getting at the deeper meaning of the film.

[FANTASTIC FEST] "Knives Out" - Rian Johnson Slays the Whodunit (Non-Spoiler Review)
Knives Out: The Thrombey Family. Image courtesy Lionsgate.
 And then there's the rest of the dysfunctional family.  First there's the eldest daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, her husband Don Johnson, and son Chris Evans as Ransom. Curtis and Johnson are great as all-business WASP-y types. But Evans is magnetic. He clearly hates everyone in his family and steals every scene he's in. He probably has the best arc of the film, too, as we go back and forth from hating him and loving him.

Then there's Toni Collette, who also tries to steal every scene she's in. She's playing the hippy-dippy liberal elite role here, complete with makeup line that's also a "lifestyle choice"! Complete with imported Southern-California cadence and vocal fry, she is the yin to Curtis/Johnson's conservative yang. And just like everything Collette seems to be doing these days, she's perfect in it. Katherine Langford plays her daughter and makes some of the most fateful, heart-wrenching decisions of the film that expose all her supposed "liberal" values as a lot of bullshit covering for basic greed and privilege.

And then we come to Michael Shannon, his wife Riki Lindhome (who unfortunately gets very little screentime) and their son Jaeden Martell. (Yes! a Midnight Special reunion!) Martell and Shannon are consistently great in things, and this is no exception. Shannon also stomps around the movie with a cane and a soft cast over some never-explained foot injury and it's such a perfect bit of character work, especially as it plays out in a late scene with Marta. Martell also spends most of the film with his face buried in his phone, and still manages to provide one of the best performances of the movie.

Indeed, it's in the third generation, the grandchildren, that we get some of the best characterization and provides the heart of the film. Evans, Langford, and Martell all represent coming in to privilege and money in different ways and from different perspectives, which cause them all to be dysfunctional in different ways. And far from it just being a liberal/conservative issue, both ideologies get skewered for their phoniness. Knives Out not only channels Hitchcock and Christie, but also a little bit of Frank Capra in the sense that values like basic human decency, hard work, and honesty are what take you far in life. All of our Thrombey clan, especially the younger generation, lack all of those.

And then there's the cops. Lakeith Stanfield is so on point in this role as a beleaguered police detective who isn't quite sure why we're continuing to bother these people, and doubly unsure why he needs this Blanc guy poking around. The fatigue of his job drips off every line he delivers, and yet he's never low energy. Stanfield is such a great actor and once again finds himself leading one of the best films of the year. And then there's Rian Johnson mainstay Noah Segan as a state trooper who is basically a murder mystery fanboy. There are multiple characters you could argue are the main "point of view" character or audience surrogate. For most people it will be following Blanc's charming detective routine or Marta's story as the truth-teller. But for some, it will be State Trooper Wagner, just geeking out the whole time about murder mysteries. He is a delight and the perfect example of the secret sauce Johnson brings to his films that elevate them to that next level.

Knives Out is a film I immediately want to see again and want to discuss with friends and family. It runs deep in its references and borrowing from other masters of the genre. There are overt references to the cozy murder mysteries of Jessica Fletcher and lesser references to Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and even the name of our protagonist is a reference to a Choose Your Own Adventure book, Who Killed Harlowe Thombey?

[FANTASTIC FEST] "Knives Out" - Rian Johnson Slays the Whodunit (Non-Spoiler Review)
Rian Johnson and Noah Segan at Fantastic Fest Premiere of Knives Out, 9/26/2019, Photo by Heather Kennedy, courtesy Fantastic Fest and Alamo Drafthouse.
But the biggest homage is to the 1970 film Sleuth, starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. In fact, in a post-film Q&A at Fantastic Fest, Johnson revealed that the production design of the film (which should be nominated for an Academy Award, along with Johnson's writing and directing, and perhaps a few acting awards) was inspired by the house in Sleuth.

Johnson also revealed that he took Hitchcock's advice/frustration with the genre and tried to work around it: most whodunits end with a giant reveal at the end and that's the main point of tension, meaning the buildup is less satisfying. But instead, if, like Sleuth, you have some of the bigger reveals in the middle and seed other reveals throughout the script, you get multiple points of tension.

Two of Johnson's greatest talents as a filmmaker are his ability to subvert tropes and to tie up loose narrative ends. Films like Brick, Looper, and, yes haters, The Last Jedi, are perfect examples of this. Johnson understands the genres he's working in (noir, time travel, and Star Wars, respectively) and knows what the audience is expecting. He's able to tease those things out and deliver on many of them, but also flip some of them on their heads to deliver newness and surprise to delight audiences. When dealing with tricky genres like mysteries or time travel, it's easy to leave loose plot threads waving out there in the wind. But Johnson is a master at grabbing those loose threads at the end and tying them up into a satisfying end.

Knives Out isn't a perfect film. But it does exactly what it sets out to do and is incredibly entertaining. When this comes to theaters this Thanksgiving, plan on taking your large extended dysfunctional family, or your large chosen found family, to go see it.

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About Andy Wilson

A mild mannered digital strategist working for an environmental nonprofit in Austin, TX roaming the interwebs fighting his nemeses by day, and by night consuming all manner of media. You can find him either on his couch or at the nearest Alamo Drafthouse catching the latest. Don't follow him on Twitter @CitizenAndy.
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