Rian Johnson can do it all. He’s directed a space opera; episodes of a neo-western drug-fueled crime drama; an action, time jumping caper; a neo-noir mystery; and now a whodunnit. While the whodunnit trope is still popular in novels, party games, and escape rooms, this comedic guessing game of crime is a type of detective story that is no longer a plot that is utilized as much as it used to be. And Johnson’s latest film, Knives Out, questions why it doesn’t get a revival. Toying with the classic elements of films like Clue, Murder By Death, and the countless Agatha Christie adaptations, Johnson crafts a clever puzzle that is relevant and political.
Not only used as the centerpiece of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey’s study, sharp knives are out all through his eclectically designed Victorian mansion, as each of his family members takes a stab at the other throughout the course of the film—a reminder of why we hate family gatherings. But the pain inflicted with these knives turns literal when the wealthy author (played by Christopher Plummer) is found dead with his throat slit after his 85th birthday celebration. All eight of his family members were there, and all eight are suspects.
There’s Harlan’s real estate mogul daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), who helps run his wife’s business. Then there’s their son, Ransom (Chris Evans), a spoiled playboy who doesn’t know anything about responsibility, but knows how to pick a nice sweater. Walter (Michael Shannon) is Harlan’s youngest son and is responsible for running his father’s publishing company. His wife, Donna (Riki Lindhome), is there with him, but she’s one of the characters that’s the most forgettable as she’s basically used as a background piece. As for their son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell) doesn’t get much to do like Lindhome, but it’s by design, as he plays your typical teen who’s constantly glued to his phone. Described as a “little nazi” by his relatives, he loves to insult his SJW cousin, Meg, calling her a “snowflake.” Played by Katherine Langford, Meg seems to be the least obsessed with acquiring her grandfather’s wealth and has the most heart of her family. Her mother, Joni, played by Toni Collette, is the widow of Harlan’s deceased son. She’s a lifestyle guru who runs her own skincare line, and her spot on valley girl accent makes you forget, once again, that Collette is actually Australian.
Some other key players also feel as underdeveloped as Walter’s wife. There’s Fran (Edi Patterson), Harlan’s housekeeper, Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield), a local detective investigating the suspected suicide (and possible murder) of the celebrated novelist, along with police officer Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). With the acknowledgment that it’s impossible to give the same amount of attention to each character in two hours, each actor does their best with how much screentime they are given. There really isn’t a weak link or any character that feels unnecessary, despite how underused some may seem. There are two standouts, though. Joining Lieutenant Elliot and Trooper Wagner on their investigation is private detective, Benoit Blanc. He’s a mysterious figure, especially because the identity of who hired him is as unknown to him as is it to the audience until Knives Out’s denouement. The script that Johnson crafts is as much comedy as it is drama, with much of its humor coming from Daniel Craig. Evans’ Ransom remarks that the investigating feels like “CSI KFC” because Craig gets the opportunity to play with a new accent: A southern Kentucky drawl. That characteristic is naturally hilarious considering his name is as French as can be. Despite tucking away the Queen’s English, Craig’s still as suave as Bond, and you begin to wonder when Blanc is going to make a martini. But he shakes the investigation just as well, with most of his time spent acting alongside Ana de Armas.
As Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s caretaker, Ana de Armas is central to the film, with the writer-director describing her character as its heart. De Armas carries the movie with confidence, and as the film’s leading character, she is able to add the most to her performance. Marta’s the one most affected by Harlan’s death, as she loved him like a father—something she doesn’t have. Her struggle to cope is affecting, but her performance is powerful, too, as Marta must deal with the fear that comes with protecting a parent who came to the country illegally. The Thrombey house is a symbol for the rich, white and privileged America, but through Marta, Knives Out’s story puts the politics of immigration under a magnifying glass. Johnson touches on the opposing sides of the immigration discourse; the liberal and conservative views about whether or not we should build a wall, or if putting children in cages is deserved or immoral.
The most conservative members of the family, like Don Johnson’s Richard for example, say that Marta is like part of the family, but will hand her their plate like a servant anyway. The Thrombeys open their home to her and say they appreciate how she took care of their father, but like most Americans, once she’s seen as a threat, they revolt, saying she’s stealing what’s rightfully theirs (whatever Americans believe that is). Despite being hardworking and honest people, immigrant stories always go the same way. They are treated as lesser because they’re not “real” Americans. But as Johnson shows through his writing of Marta, America is their house, too.
While the plot feels quite straightforward for the most part, luckily Knives Out delivers the classic whodunnit twist you can’t see coming, as all the pieces of this investigation, shown mostly in flashbacks, are meticulously executed. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography is tight and precise, with its many character close-ups allowing the audience to judge for themselves who may be guilty and who may be innocent. The film is sharp and entertaining, but while its dialogue isn’t Madeline Kahn level of iconic, you can’t help but think back to films like Clue because, whether it intended to be or not, Knives Out is a nostalgic experience.
Knives Out will be released in theaters on November 27th, 2019