There are movies that you get excited for after you see a trailer or after a friend who knows your taste tells you you’ll like it. Then there are movies that you get excited for the moment you hear about them with the scantest of details. That was KNIVES OUT to me. A large cast murder mystery directed by Rian Johnson? Hell yes, sign me up.
It is nice when a movie lives up to your overblown expectations.
The Idea Behind KNIVES OUT
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead. All signs point to suicide, but famous private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has reason to think otherwise. Tagging along on Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner’s (Noah Segan) investigation, Blanc finds lots of possible motives for Harlan’s children Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), his children-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), and Donna Thrombey (Riki Lindhome), and his grandchildren Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans), Meg Thrombey (Katherine Langford), and Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell) to kill him. However, he seems to only have conjecture.
So he teams with Harlan’s nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who can’t lie without vomiting, to unravel the case. Then things get complicated.
Writing KNIVES OUT
Rian Johnson, scripting for himself as usual, just has a way with words and characters that I cannot help but enjoy. While he can write stylized dialogue — think BRICK or the bizarre expressions deployed by Blanc here — he is not defined by it ala Sorkin or Mamet. He has style but not a style, if that makes sense, and that allows him to adapt to different settings and tone easily. He writes to the world of his movies rather than mold his movies to his writing.
(This is not a dig. I am a fan of writers like Sorkin and Mamet. They just offer different skills from Johnson).
What is particularly striking in KNIVES is how many cast members he juggles while giving them each distinctive personalities in how they talk. These are not a dozen characters all talking alike. Each brings a unique set of vocabulary and way of using language to the table. That’s hard to do with a few characters nevermind the several here.
On a construction basis, KNIVES is wonderfully well built. It rarely, if ever, flags and every scene nicely reveal a little but never too much. I suppose I could ding it a little for not being a mystery that one could solve. The movie gives you enough to have ideas or theories, but never enough true evidence to put it all together. That is fine for me. I don’t usually try to beat mystery movies to their reveals, but I know for many they consider it to be a demerit if a mystery does not give you enough to solve it on your own.
Casting the Leads of KNIVES OUT
I don’t think Daniel Craig is ever as much fun as mean he is pouring a syrupy Southern accent over his work (see also, LOGAN LUCKY). That’s not to say he isn’t good in, say, GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. He is. But there is such an effortless joy to his work here that it is nigh impossible not to get swept up in it. And while the accent is broad, his work is not. He nails small moments of humor with just as much skill as the ones where he has to own the screen. It is, top to bottom, a wonderfully unself-conscious performance.
I have liked Ana de Armas’ work in movies I hate (KNOCK, KNOCK), movies I like (WAR DOGS!), and movies I love (BLADE RUNNER 2049). However, with the exception of the last one, and perhaps even that, I tended to think of her as an actor whose charisma is carrying the day. She was not a bad actor, at all, but I thought her charisma was elevating her. KNIVES OUT is a confirmation that I am sometimes quite dumb and she is more than capable as an actor. I loved how she could hold the fact that she was an anxious over her head woman while still, in a scene with Michael Shannon no less, demonstrating she was also intelligent and very capable of subtly turning the knife in someone with just a sentence or two.
Casting the Thrombey Family
Jamie Lee Curtis finds a way into Linda’s, the oldest daughter, rigidity in a way that does not dim her on-screen command. The cold new head of the family can be a thankless role to play, but Curtis manages to make it clear how much of a façade it is, how much anger she has boiling under the surface. When she eventually spins out, the torrent that comes out of her feels natural, a culmination of what we all knew had to come. However, it is her recovery from that moment that really makes it, the way she clamps down and seizes control of herself and her extended family once more. It is not a single moment, but just the vibe she exudes after that moment.
Michael Shannon plays a bit against type as a sort of milquetoast member of the family. He has his anger, for sure, but there is something small and almost pathetic about it. At his biggest moment of anger and triumph, all he can manage is petty taunts. I really enjoyed how Shannon divorced himself from all the menace he’s brought to previous roles to give us a man who never seems intimidating, never has control, despite the literal wealth and power he wields every day.
Chris Evans is another, like Craig, who just seems to be having a blast with this one. His return to snark is wonderful, for sure, but Ransom has a lot more notes they what you might have seen in the trailer. Evan seems to be in his cups just as much when he is arrogantly mocking his family as he is when angrily declaiming Blanc’s investigation.
Casting the Thrombey Family Part II
Obviously I can go on and I will! But I’ll be quicker here.
How great is it that Don Johnson chose this year to remind us how good he can be? Pretty great! His cluelessness during a particularly politically charged scene is especially noteworthy.
Toni Collette mines the hypocrisy of the modern lifestyle expert, someone who talks like a hippy in the 60s but is fixated on money like an 80’s yuppy.
Katherine Langford as seemingly the only “good” Thrombey does a smart job of peekaboo, presenting well and then bowing to family pressure and her own privilege the moment things seem rocky.
Jaeden Martell is a glorious teen alt-righter. I liked him in the IT films and other places I have seen him but this is hands-down his best work to date. Excited to watch his versatility grow as he does.
Riki Lindhome plays a kind of junior version of Curtis’s Linda. Think someone who takes on the traits of the in-law that scares them but is all surface. I do wish she had a little more to do, but this is the kind of movie you wish everyone had more time to show their stuff.
Casting the Rest of the Callsheet
Lots of great supporting work in KNIVES OUT including, wonderfully, as brief appearance by M. Emmet Walsh.
However, I really wanted to write about LaKeith Stanfield here. As the more serious of the cops — Noah Segan is the guy who can’t stop just being happy to be there — Stanfield seems to be the realistic foil to Blanc’s “genius” early on. However, once Blanc selects Marta as “his Watson,” Stanfield’s Elliot really fades into the background. If I have a criticism of the film it is that. While deft at character juggling in general, the script and the movie stumbles when it comes to the Lieutenant. Sidelining Stanfield in the midst of a low-key but strong performance is a mistake any way you slice it.
Directing KNIVES OUT
Much like his script, KNIVES OUT is visually well-built. Johnson’s use of setting animates the themes that lie beneath the murder mystery. The house alone provides multiple opportunities to both emphasize how money has both expanded and constrained the Thrombey/Drysdale’s point of view.
Visually — as with the writer — Johnson, together with his usual cinematographer Steve Yedlin, created a look and atmosphere that fits the film like a glove. The use of glass and doors to divide people from one another and obfuscate action and motive is truly excellent stuff.
The editor Bob Ducsay also deserves credit. By its nature, this film revisits scenes multiple times from different angles or with different information. Nonetheless, Ducsay maintains the film’s pace and makes each return to earlier moments feel fresh.
That’s a Wrap!
If you can’t tell, I found KNIVES OUT just a great time at the movies. So much so that I didn’t get to dive into the deeper, harder themes Johnson incorporates into it. While they never overwhelm the movie, they do feel more than haphazardly thrown off. Concerns about politics, wealth, immigration, white supremacy, class resentment, and more underpin the thrills that make the movie go. While not as directly engaged with these ideas as US or PARASITE, KNIVES is nonetheless another 2019 film about class. It openly considers and presents the idea of how power, especially monetary power, creates societal rot.
Again, though, I don’t want to oversell the heaviness. The cast and crew all prove deft at bringing the themes to the surface without lapsing into didactics. Despite the ideas being wrestled with here, they never make the film a slog. It is an impressive feat and one that should be seen as soon as possible.