Knives Out (United States, 2019)

November 25, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Knives Out Poster

There are reasons why Hollywood rarely backs a murder mystery.  With its various narrative complexities, double dealings, and mandatory twists, the genre is generally unsuited for the constrictions demanded by a two-hour timeslot. As the PBS TV series Mystery! illustrated, it’s possible to craft a great whodunnit? for viewing (as opposed to reading) but it typically demands a longer, more relaxed format. With Knives Out, however, writer/director Rian Johnson proves there are exceptions to every rule. Despite being constrained by the necessary tropes, Johnson delivers an old-fashioned sort of tale with a modern edge. The approach is more Agatha Christie than Dorothy Sayers but Johnson obviously loves them both (and likely many others as well) and his affection for their playground is evident in the way he structures the story.

For his follow-up to the divisive The Last Jedi, Johnson has turned his back on science fiction and returned to the fields where Brick and The Brothers Bloom found root. It goes without saying that Knives Out is a more personal film for Johnson (to the extent that a murder mystery can be considered “personal”) and the fun he has with the subject matter comes across. This isn’t the frenetic, hyperactive variant we have come to associate with mystery-thrillers. It has a more contemplative tone and savors its revelations while nevertheless building to a satisfying resolution. Best of all, it avoids the clichéd “you didn’t see that coming” conclusion, opting instead for a resolution that doesn’t require cheap tricks or whiplash-inducing twists to work. That’s not to say Knives Out lacks surprises but, when they happen, they’re organic.

In classic murder mysteries, there are two approaches to how the detective is represented. He can be a detached force of logic and intuition – the figure who comes in from the outside to dump the skeletons out of the closet and solve the mystery. Or he can be as fully-formed as any of the suspects – a character with his own secrets and desires. Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter Wimsey? Johnson has opted for the former. The only things we learn about Benoit Blanc are that he’s famous, he always solves the case, his dad was a police detective, and Daniel Craig is having a wonderful time playing someone without a license to kill.

Knives Out’s first corpse belongs to a famous mystery author, 85-year old Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, still going strong at age 89), whose manner of death is ruled suicide by slit throat. Blanc, who is “consulting” with the police, isn’t so sure. He suspects foul play and hasn’t ruled out any suspects. And there are plenty gathered together in the Thrombey mansion: Harlan’s type-A daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their pugnacious offspring, Ransom (Chris Evans); Harlan’s youngest son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs the publishing empire; and Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and her college-going daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford). Also in the mix is Harlan’s personal nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who has a useful (at least to the police) trait: if she tells a lie, she becomes sick to her stomach. There’s ambiguity surrounding Blanc’s involvement, as well: he was hired anonymously and, although police detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) is more than happy for the expert help, he believes Blanc is overcomplicating a straightforward case.

Blanc’s modus operandi is straightforward: he re-creates the night of the crime by meticulous examination of the scene, conducts witness and suspect interviews, and scrutinizes the physical evidence. He discovers that there’s a hole in the middle of the night’s activities and is determined to fill that hole. (Later attempts on his part to expand this doughnut analogy become amusingly complicated.) Because Johnson shows viewers the “real” story behind the suspects’ statements, we’re privy to information Blanc doesn’t have. By the film’s half-way point, we may think we know what happened the night of Harlan’s death but, this being a whodunnit?, nothing is sure until the detective submits his final report.

Over the years, Daniel Craig has shown considerable range when not playing 007 and his performance as Blanc deserves a place alongside that of Logan Lucky’s Joe Bang. Adopting a southern drawl and a seemingly nonchalant attitude, Blanc is the perfectly laid-back American analog of a classic British detective. The other actors in the play seem to be enjoying themselves as much as Craig, with Chris Evans delighting in playing a villainous type and Ana de Armas being disarmingly, charmingly trapped by circumstances and her character’s weak stomach. Johnson knows how to assemble a rogues’ gallery and, once they’re lined up, he brings out the red herrings.

Murder mystery lovers are likely to swoon at what Johnson has accomplished in a little over two hours. His skill with plotting is matched only by his knack with dialogue. Knives Out has the whodunnit? field all to itself in 2019. In fact, the only other filmmaker of note doing these movies, Kenneth Branagh, is between Poirot titles. (Murder on the Orient Express was last year’s release and Death on the Nile won’t arrive until 2020.) However, even in a crowd of similar titles, this movie would stand out. It’s exceptional escapist entertainment for those who don’t mind a little spice sprinkled into their cozy mystery.

Knives Out (United States, 2019)

Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Katherine Langford, Christopher Plummer, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Frank Oz
Home Release Date: 2020-02-25
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Music: Nathan Johnson
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2019
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2019-11-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1