Synopsis: A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.
Stars: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, K Callan, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Raúl Castillo
Director: Rian Johnson
Running Length: 130 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Readers, there’s a mystery to solve and I need your help finding the solution. Who killed the whodunit? The suspects are as follows. Studio execs that didn’t see the value in continuing to produce mid-range budgeted films that would often make their money back but didn’t have franchise possibilities. Screenwriters that grew lazy with their material and started to rehash well-worn plots that didn’t keep viewers guessing as much as it did counting down the minutes until the inevitable twist was introduced. Audiences that stayed away, preferring their trips to the theater be reserved for spectacles of populist entertainment. The death was slow but not unexpected, with the last gasp occurring in the dead of a summer’s night in the mid 2000s.
A life-long fan of mysteries, I’ve been starving for an old-fashioned whodunit, the kind of jigsaw puzzle of a movie that wasn’t just about unmasking a teen slasher but doing some detective work to get answers. It’s probably why I welcomed 2018’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express with an extra warm hug (more than most critics) and why I was eagerly anticipating the release of writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Here was the pre-Thanksgiving feast I’d been waiting for and if the early previews delivered on its promise, there was a distinct possibility it could lead to more of its kind in the future. Boasting a star-studded cast, cheeky humor, and a solid but not entirely complex enigma at its core, Knives Out is decidedly entertaining but curiously lacking in connection.
You’re in a spoiler-free zone so read on with confidence knowing nothing not already presented in the trailers will be discussed.
Famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World) has been found dead the morning after his birthday party where his entire family was in attendance. Originally ruling the death a suicide, the police have gathered the family for another round of questioning when an anonymous tip attracts the attention of famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, Skyfall). One by one, every family member recounts their memory of the last night they saw Harlan alive, each producing a slightly different take on the evening. Only Harlan’s young attendant/nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) seems to be able to speak the truth, but then again she has a physical aversion to lying that causes her to…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
The first forty five minutes of Knives Out is occupied with Blanc and Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, The Girl in the Spider’s Web) getting to know the family better, giving us a chance to see their internal dynamics as well. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) is a self-made businesswoman married to loafer Richard (Don Johnson, Paradise) and their charming but churlish son Ransom (Chris Evans, Avengers: Endgame) is the clear black sheep of the family. Running his father’s publishing house is Walt (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and he grows frustrated with his dad’s refusal to take advantage of the profitable endeavors he has been proposing. Married to a third sibling that passed away, Joni (Toni Collette, Krampus) and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford, Love, Simon) are kept close even if behind closed doors they aren’t truly considered family. Then there is Harlan’s mother (K. Callan, American Gigolo), a near silent crone that’s always watching and definitely always listening.
That’s a lot of people to juggle, and I haven’t even discussed a few extra bodies, but by some miracle Johnson’s script manages to make time for all of them. Still, it never quite feels like enough. Viewers will be surprised how little certain stars are participatory as the movie unfolds. Sure, they have an impact on the plot and get moments to shine but with an ensemble this large it’s natural to miss out on featuring everyone all the time. Thankfully, Johnson (Looper) learned a thing or two from his time on Star Wars: The Last Jedi and knows how to pepper the movie with spikes of energy if the pacing is starting to drop off. Each time the plot seemed to be hitting a bit of a wall, it pivoted in some tiny way to keep you off kilter. I would have liked there to a bit more, ultimately, to this family. The way it’s scripted, they are slightly walking jokes waiting for a set-up and punchline.
As for the mystery of what happened to Harlan Thrombey, well I wouldn’t dream of giving that away. What I will say is that I appreciated Johnson didn’t cheat when all was revealed. Having seen enough of these movies over the years I can easily start to piece together the clues and so when I saw them pop up I started to place the important pieces to one side. When it was time to step back and see the big picture, it was nice to see it all fit together…and not precisely in the way I thought it was going to. The performances and cinematography are key to pulling this kind of sleight-of-hand off more than anything and Johnson’s cast of experienced professionals all are more than up to the challenge.
The biggest take away I have for you is this: Knives Out is a lot of fun. In a movie-going era where so many films that get released are dependent on existing intellectual property, it’s a welcome relief that a studio like Lionsgate went the extra mile with this and supported Johnson in his endeavor to try something old but in a modern way. It’s a little light, if I’m being honest, and I’m not sure what a second viewing will be like. I know I do want to see it again and that’s saying something. It’s supposed to snow this Thanksgiving weekend where I am in the Midwest and I can’t think of a better way to spend a gloomy snow day than in a warm theater watching a movie like this play out — the community experience for this one should be fun.