Love or hate, but you’ve got to respect him, Rian Johnson has gotten off subverting audience expectations for four wholly unique genre films now. Playing into the murder mystery classics of old, Knives Out is another smartly crafted Johnson special, though also one starting to show signs of diminishing returns in the writer/director’s sly bag of tricks.
Knives Out opens on the apparent suicide, but likely murder of Harlan Thrombey, a prolific author of dozens of mystery novels celebrated the world over. When superstar sleuthing PI Benoit Blanc arrives on the scene, every member of Thrombey’s eccentric family becomes a prime suspect after giving a series of shadily incongruent interviews about a party the night before that just don’t match up. Teaming with Thrombey’s former nurse and only trustworthy witness, Marta, Blanc locks the family mansion up until he can deduce who the real killer is.
Sort of. That’s only the first act before Johnson takes a radical turn and twists the straightforward whodunnit into an entirely different mystery-thriller-caper. You’ve got to admire the balls on Johnson for veering his story into a completely new direction, especially since this first chunk of Knives Out already works really well as a charming, spicily humorous murder mystery throwback with a super game cast.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, and a vengefully mean new face of Chris Evans are all delightful as the Thrombey family, all getting to sink their teeth into chewy roles popping with personality. Lakeith Stanfield and frequent Johnson collaborator Noah Segan are additionally good as the two cops on the case, and Christopher Plummer is an unexpected joy in more ways than one as the late Harlan. That’s not to mention Daniel Craig’s golden performance as the drawling, jib-jabbering Benoit Blanc, a grilling lampoon of every suave mystery novel detective that, while unapologetically silly, comes from a place of genuine adoration for the genre.
The film’s real winner is Ana de Armas, though. Following her beautiful, scene-stealing role in Blade Runner 2049, de Armas gives another soulful performance as Marta, who, despite being given the thankless task of playing the straight man to the rest of the zany cast, outshines everyone else through her voracious vulnerability and sheer earnestness. De Armas carries the movie, especially once the film blows its wad and the aftermath of Johnson’s first twist begins to unravel.
Unfortunately for Knives Out, the film’s genre-subverting second act drags after an electric introduction to its central mystery. The plot doesn’t go anywhere in particular, depending on the suspense of a certain reveal to carry the rest of the film onward, just to no great avail. Again, what Johnson does is super respectable, but the result isn’t quite engaging or thrilling enough to back the twist up. Additionally, the film’s very final reveal feels a little convoluted and reliant on too small, unclever details while trying to put a bow around everything.
But overall, Johnson ends up telling an excellently constructed narrative about the relationship between immigrants and, ahem, entitled homegrown Americans. Though the genre elements of the film deliver as a double-edged sword, the real story at the heart of Knives Out is cuttingly telling and very smartly written. Upon a scrutinized analysis read by an immigrant, the message concerning bad white people and an idealized, essentially flawless person of color feels just a tad patronizing coming from Johnson’s perspective. Still, its good intentions and good writing are appreciated and totally overshadow that minor criticism. It’s also refreshing seeing a classic whodunnit set in a time of smartphones, technology, and such relevant themes of nationality and race.
Featuring great performances from an all-star cast and a winding, albeit subversive mystery, Knives Out is another winner from Rian Johnson.
Knives come in, freshness squirts out