Click here for the interview with Rian Johnson about KNIVES OUT
The reason to see a truly brilliant whodunit a second time is to savor the cleverness of how the writer has put all the clues in front of the audience without giving anything away about the solution. And so it is with Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT, an archly funny, fiendishly plotted murder mystery that flings its twists and turns with wild abandon while hiding the truth in plain sight. I speak from experience when I say that it is every bit as enjoyable on the second viewing as it is on its first. I suspect it will also be just as good on its third.
This is in no small part to the vivid characters with which Johnson has peopled his delicious, ahem, stab at the genre. In classic whodunit style, he has given us a motley cross section of humanity with varying degrees of likability. He’s also given us a gentleman sleuth, he even calls him that, in the person of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig in finely refined comedic fettle). He is called in by a mysterious employer after the suicide of wealthy mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) just after the party his family threw him for his 85th birthday. There is no official suspicion about Harlan’s passing from the local police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan), but after he joins them in interviewing the family and Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), he portentously intones, using a languid, chewy southern drawl, that he suspects foul play. And that he has ruled out no one as a suspect.
And we’re off.
The family is introduced during those police interviews as Benoit sits in the background, flipping a coin and hitting a stray note or two on the piano. There is Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), the real estate mogul with daddy issues and a vicious condescension. There’s her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), evincing an affect of being a perfectly amicable fellow, yet one who is barely able to contain his complete disdain for Linda’s family, starting with Walt (Michael Shannon), Linda’s milquetoast brother, who runs dad’s publishing empire and is himself the father of a in internet trolling Nazi (Jaeden Martell); Joni (Toni Collette), the vapid lifestyle guru and widow of Harlan’s other son; and finally Ransom (Chris Evans) Linda’s arrogant trust-fund son, who, to be fair, is universally disliked by everyone, including the chatterbox housekeeper (Edi Patterson). On the other hand, they all love Marta, even if they can’t agree on what her country of origin is, and are as bemused as Benoit is about the young woman’s unique relationship to lying. As they each tell what happened that fateful night, they are strategically intercut with one another contradicting and confirming what the others say, revealing more than they realize, and certainly more than they meant to. So do the flashbacks that amplify, but don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
Who did what and when and why unfolds as a subtext of Johnson’s contemplation of class plays out, as do his thoughts on what the rich and complacent really think about anyone who is not them. It’s never strident, and all the more effective for having small touches, such as the Thrombey’s hazy understanding of any geography south of the border, and the way that Richard smilingly calls Marta over during Harlan’s party (is she a guest or is she tending to the author?) to ask her opinion about something with a completely unconscious condescension, speaking to her in what he supposes is a show of equality, and then hands her his plate when he’s done with it without giving it a second thought or even looking at her as he does it. Should we read much into the fact that during a key sequence Marta’s car, an import, can go places that the American made cars can’t? Oh yes.
Set in a house that seems to have been inspired by the board game, Clue, with macabre art, eccentric angles, and Harlan’s silent mother (K Callan), the story has razor sharp dialogue, and a devastating way with chiaroscuro. The direction is narratively acute, and dynamic without ever becoming overwrought as it pays homage to its predecessors while offering just the merest whiff of being self-aware.
KNIVES OUT takes a brisk pace with its cinematic legerdemain as its cast expertly calibrate their performances so that arch never strays into the certain disaster of becoming artificial. The result is a giddily entertaining, emotionally engaging film that sets a new standard for its genre, and, if there is any justice, will launch the Benoit Blanc franchise.