Knives Out is sharp and cutting in its not-so-subtle critique of class warfare and ideologies, even as it serves it all up in a rambunctious caper, a hilarious whodunit (or whodonut*). The mise-en-scene is impeccable, the ensemble cast extraordinary, the sweaters to die for. And death is central to writer and director Rian Johnson’s smartly subversive detective story, specifically the mysterious death of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found with a cut throat the morning after his 85th birthday party. When the police (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) arrive to investigate, they’re accompanied by private detective and Southern gentleman Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who questions the various members of the Thrombey family one by one, thus uncovering a list of possible suspects for killing Harlan: every single one of them.
Adjacent to the family, yet central to Knives Out, is Marta (Ana de Armas), the demure and kindhearted nurse to Harlan. More than a caretaker, she has developed a genuine friendship with the elderly millionaire, one which even seems socially appropriate. So when Harlan’s death prompts an investigation, she finds herself caught up in a cat-and-mouse game of attempting to discover who was responsible for her friend’s untimely and violent demise out of the wild cast of suspects. But who could it be? There’s uppity real estate moguls Linda and Richard Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson), Harlan’s daughter and son-in-law; their son Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans) is a Grade-A spoiled asshole. Harlan’s youngest son, Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the family publishing company, while Joni (Toni Collette), who was married to Harlan’s deceased son, Neil, is a social media influencer and lifestyle guru. Joni’s daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), is a liberal arts college student taking the “liberal” part seriously, but Walt’s teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is an online alt-right activist (i.e. a troll) who is always on his phone. An unlikely suspect (but possible witness to anything shady) is the matriarch Great Nana (K Callan), Harlan’s geriatric mother. Every actor takes their role seriously even as the entire spectacle seems imbued with an underlying mirth—this is a fun film, and everyone on-screen truly believes it, even if some get much more attention than others (Michael Shannon in particular is never allowed to go full crazy). Best of all is Craig as Blanc, whose dapper tweed suits and Foghorn Leghorn accent are wonderfully ostentatious; he trades the brooding flinty visage he brings to his James Bond for a warm debonair charm. While all of these characters are a bit over-the-top, Johnson wisely grounds the film in a real-world aesthetic which feels idiosyncratic, but not totally wacky. In this, I admit I found some of the humor lacking, more of a grunted chuckle than outright guffaws. Still, there’s not a single boring moment and it’s consistently entertaining.
Part Agatha Christie mystery, part Clue (both board game and movie), Knives Out is all Johnson—it’s both delightfully old-fashioned and strikingly progressive, a celebration of the past even as it leans hopefully into the future. The details of the production design and costumes are exemplary, and while I think my local theater perhaps had a projection and sound issue (some early dialogue was totally indecipherable to me), the cinematography supports the narrative in impressive and intentional ways. A passion project which has been in works since his 2005 neo-noir masterpiece Brick, Johnson has crafted a genuinely good film about a genuinely good person, namely Marta. Without giving away any of the plot details—there’s a certain pleasure in watching this film’s narrative unfold with all its mysteries intact—I must say that Knives Out ultimately appears to celebrate virtue over and above selfish ambition or vain conceit. The final shot—a masterful composition, if not a bit heavy-handed in symbolism—is strongly in tune with the words Christ preached in Luke 6, where blessings are bestowed upon the poor and woes declared on the rich. Furthermore, Christ declares: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit … A good person brings good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and an evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” For those who have seen the film, and in the words of the Gospel author: let the reader understand. Despite all the outrageous circumstances Marta endures throughout Knives Out, I believe (and I think the film affirms) she is a truly good person. And in a broken world full of cynical takes and prejudicial injustice, such goodness and hope is worth celebrating.
*I have to credit Jeff Overstreet for this delightful neologism.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8946378/