THE STORY – A detective and a trooper travel to a lush estate to interview the quirky relatives of a patriarch who died during his 85th birthday celebration.
THE CAST – Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell & Christopher Plummer
THE TEAM – Rian Johnson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 130 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Certain film genres are evergreen. Hardly a year goes by without more war dramas, teen comedies, or family dramas. But others often have their day in the sun and then disappear. Key among these is the all-star murder mystery. We got a nice spate of them in the ’70s-’80s, but they’ve been mostly gone from cinemas since then. Despite their pleasures (mostly mega-stars chewing scenery while wearing gorgeous clothes in gorgeous places), it’s easy to see why: Audiences caught on to the formula, and once they did, they stopped showing up. It’s hard to blame someone for not shelling out money to see a film that’s predicated on having an ending that will surprise them when they know they will be able to figure it out long before the film reveals it.
But at the same time, these kinds of films can still be lots of fun despite figuring out the identity of the murderer early. Case in point: Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” a devilishly entertaining all-star murder mystery that stands with the best of the genre that Agatha Christie helped popularize. The story, written by Johnson, boasts a classic set-up: After his 85th birthday celebration, famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, apparently through suicide, in his remote estate. All of his extended family (including Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, and Michael Shannon) were present, and all of them had motives. There’s also his nurse (Ana de Armas), with whom he was very close. When the family is called back to the estate for interviews, they find lead inspector Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) joined by one Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private inspector of some renown (as Collette’s Joni says, in one of the film’s best lines: “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you”), who was paid anonymously to look into Harlan’s death. From there, hijinks, lies, backstabbing, double-crossing, and misdirection ensue.
Yes, in many ways, Johnson is merely adding a fresh coat of paint to this old-fashioned set-up, but what a paint job it is! He has written one of the year’s funniest screenplays and assembled a cast of superstars that are clearly having the time of their lives with it. It starts with Craig, serving up a whole honey-glazed Virginia ham and having the time of his life as the southern-fried version of Hercule Poirot. His performance alone is worth the price of admission, using all of his considerable movie star charisma to ride an amazingly over the top and overcooked accent. It’s a ridiculously fun performance to watch, and that filters down through the rest of the cast. Collette (as the Gwyneth Paltrow-esque daughter-in-law), Curtis (as the high-powered executive daughter), Johnson (as her put-upon husband), Evans (as their smug stubborn asshole of a son), and Shannon (as the son with daddy issues) are all clearly relishing the dialogue and the chance to chew the scenery. Evans especially seems to be enjoying his freedom from the shackles of Captain America and the ability to swear again. Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Riki Lindhome are all good, too, but the film doesn’t give them enough to play with.
All this is very well and good and speaks to how much fun the film is, but what really puts “Knives Out” in a class of its own is the performance of Ana de Armas as Harlan’s nurse, Marta. Marta is a kind soul, perhaps the only truly kind one in this den of vipers, and de Armas gives a performance that makes it easy to see why Harlan likes her so. It’s not easy to put across a performance of a nice person that is also full of charisma, but de Armas does it. She’s the true audience surrogate character, being pushed and pulled by the individual family members and the investigators in every direction. Is she as innocent as she seems? Will she make it out alive? Do any of the Thrombey family know what country her family is from? De Armas makes it easy to care for Marta, and provides an emotional anchor for the film, without which, it would be a funhouse ride and nothing more.
Marta also serves as the trojan horse for Johnson to bring in a sneaky critique of class and wealth disparity in America. It’s not something the film needed, but it gives the film a stickiness that it would not have had otherwise. Marta is the counterweight to all the scenery-chewing, and as fun as it is to watch scenery-chewing this skillful, her storyline and de Armas’s performance gives the film the extra weight it needs to land.
“Knives Out” makes a great argument for bringing back the all-star murder mystery. Despite some slight pacing issues, it moves well, thanks to the one-liner packed script and the delicious performances. Johnson and his cast are all having lots of fun with it, and that fun transfers to the audience. Even if you “figure it out” before the characters do, it doesn’t matter because the journey is even more fun than the destination. Let’s just hope that future entries in this genre are as entertaining and sneakily timely as this.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An excellent cast having the time of their lives with a very funny script and just the right amount of twists for a good old-fashioned whodunnit. There’s also some unexpected topicality thrown in for good measure.
THE BAD – Has some issues with pacing, and some of the ensemble members are given so little to do that they might as well not be there.
THE OSCARS – Best Original Screenplay (Nominated)