‘Knives Out’ is a precise, thrilling whodunnit for modern audiences

By Samantha Aman

The madcap comedy “Knives Out” premieres in Toronto. (Claire Folger/Lionsgate)

“Knives Out” is the kind of movie you should know almost nothing about before you see it.

In theory, this should make it difficult to review, but “Knives Out” is so full of twists, turns, fantastically idiosyncratic characters, pitch-perfect comedy and relevant themes it could be discussed for hours without needing to spoil a single thing.

The film is writer-director Rian Johnson’s follow-up to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and it has a setup that could have been taken directly out of an Agatha Christie novel.

Benoit Blanc, a private detective played by Daniel Craig, is hired under mysterious circumstances to investigate the death of famous mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who appears to have committed suicide following his 85th birthday party.

Blanc hones in on the party’s eccentric attendees, including the deceased’s passive-aggressive children (Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon), obnoxious grandson (Chris Evans), and unassuming nurse (Anna de Armas).

As familiar as this setup may seem, Johnson never allows the audience to become comfortable with the film’s direction. The twists and turns start early and continue throughout, generating one gasp-worthy moment after another until the movie reaches its simultaneously unexpected and perfectly fitting crescendo.

“Knives Out” is also as enjoyable as it is captivating. This is largely thanks to Johnson’s writing, which blends laugh-out-loud comedy into the whodunnit without ever sacrificing the tension.

In short, “Knives Out” has just as much in common with “Clue” as it does with “And Then There Where None,” and it never loses sight of what makes either of those properties great.

The movie’s star-studded cast also help balance the tone, and each actor seems to be taking visible pleasure in their role. Craig and Evans are especially well cast, playing with and against their franchise-built onscreen personas in unexpected ways. Craig chews the scenery delightfully, using a Southern accent so strong it prompts another character to mockingly ask if Blanc is from “CSI: KFC.”

Curtis and Toni Collette, playing Thrombey’s pretentious daughter and vapid daughter-in-law respectively, are also stand-outs. Both actors relish in the comedy of their ridiculous characters without ever losing sight of them as human beings, allowing the audience to develop a kind of “sympathy for the devil” as the film progresses.

And the Thrombey family is certainly devilish. The family functions as a pointed critique of American entitlement, and Johnson paints a vivid picture of how some wealthy or white Americans have come to see their ill-gotten privileges as owed to them.

These ideas are mostly spelled out in the subtext, but politics features prominently in the text as well— just one of the ways Johnson anchors his movie in the present day. (Some of the film’s best laugh-lines, for example, are at the expense of Thrombey’s angry and withdrawn alt-right grandson, played by Jaeden Martell.)

Overall, despite its gothic-castle appearances, “Knives Out” is less a throwback and more a love letter to the murder-mystery, a genre that has largely fallen out of favor in Hollywood over the last few decades.

By preserving the intricately-plotted structure of the classic whodunnit in a way that feels fresh for modern audiences, Johnson makes a compelling case for reviving the formula.
“Knives Out” will be released in theaters on Nov. 27.

Contact Samantha Aman at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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