The name, “Rian Johnson” has become rather infamous in the nerd sphere lately, after the director’s very divisive blockbuster opus, Star Wars: The Last Jedi graced theatres in 2017. Despite some critics and moviegoers embracing the rather, ahem, ‘forward-thinking’ Star Wars sequel, for its efforts to subvert expectations and forsake the series’ past, fan demands be damned, others considered Star Wars: The Last Jedi to be an affront to the much-adored franchise, subsequently subjecting Johnson to an avalanche of disapproval ever since. It’s a pretty regrettable state of affairs for what’s definitely not the worst Star Wars movie ever made (especially not in a universe where the Star Wars prequel trilogy exists), but if there’s a bright side to all of that negativity from the so-called, “Fandom Menace”, it’s that it blessed us with Knives Out.
Johnson has freely admitted that the fan backlash to Star Wars: The Last Jedi helped to inspire his much-anticipated and wholly original whodunit pitch, with Knives Out uniting a star-studded cast within an old-fashioned murder mystery, albeit one designed for the modern era. The movie echoes shades of the career behind literary sleuth icons, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, packing in a quick wit with an astonishingly detailed setting and cast of personalities, which all present conflicting accounts, petty concerns and no shortage of obfuscating noise. Even with gentleman sleuth, Benoit Blanc on the case, a new detective character that Johnson is interested in setting up for his own prospective indie-scale film franchise, the shady, unreliable Thrombey family proves incredibly difficult to untangle, presenting a scenario wherein everyone is a suspect, after the rich family patriarch turns up dead.
After Johnson spent so much time looking to untapped frontiers with sci-fi offerings like Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out almost feels like a rebuttal to Johnson’s own recent creative philosophy. It’s an ode to the old-school, but one that feels freshly invigorated and inspired for modern moviegoing audiences, as if it was presenting a dormant style of filmmaking that wasn’t ever dead, but was simply waiting to be fully awakened again. Johnson may have tapped upon the idea of a murder mystery with his feature directing debut, Brick from 2005, but Knives Out proudly tackles the fundamental tropes of the whodunit genre with glee and enthusiasm, proving with masterful precision that classic mystery sensibilities can have a place in today’s sophisticated mainstream movie industry.
As much as Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is supposed to be a central character in Knives Out, with the marketing especially appearing to hint that he’s the main character of the movie, the actual main character role is more accurately filled by Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera (interestingly, de Armas is also reuniting with Craig as a Bond girl for next year’s new Bond flick, No Time To Die), a nurse to the murder victim, of vague South American descent. With Blanc ruling Marta out early, he decides to enlist Marta as an aid to his investigation, believing that she genuinely has the least to gain from killing the victim, Christopher Plummer’s wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey. Thrombey’s family, on the other hand, is a different matter, with all manner of eccentric relatives hanging about Thrombey’s estate, in recent celebration of his 85th birthday, only to all seem equally eager to pick up a fat inheritance.
Knives Out’s ensemble Thrombey family cast is pretty amazing too. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Chris Evans, Jaeden Martell and K Callan all portray various Thrombey family members, each with their own unique eccentricities and life stations, though every one of them seems to have something to gain from the untimely passing of Harlan Thrombey. Each actor in the ensemble plays their character to snarky, offbeat perfection as well, creating the ultimate dysfunctional family, one that almost feels out of time, and yet so painfully real in the context of the modern world. It’s another way through which Knives Out cleverly marries the tropes of the past with the cinematic flavouring of the present, and as you can imagine, the less you know about each character going in, the better. There are no weak links in the core cast either, despite its massive size, with every character realized incredibly well in both writing and performance, even as Craig and de Armas truly steal the show by holding up the progression of the overall mystery to outstanding effect.
Knives Out takes its time unfolding, never wasting a moment. The movie definitely isn’t afraid to progress at a slow burn, and perhaps the only slight gripe one could make toward its otherwise remarkably impressive storyline is the fact that it does have some slow stretches. Nothing feels superfluous or tedious, though the opening stretch of the movie in particular can be a little sluggish, as is par for the course for many whodunits. Once you’re sucked into the mystery though, which shouldn’t take too long, Knives Out proves to be effortlessly compelling. I obviously can’t speak much to finer details in the storyline for want of avoiding spoilers, but it’s a very well-crafted whodunit overall, ensuring that there’s enough twists and turns to make the final result feel satisfying, while also cleverly setting up the narrative to make sure that every character, even those least consequential to the mystery, gets the chance to make their mark.
Rian Johnson writes, directs and produces Knives Out, from an original concept that he came up with himself. Given free reign over his project then, Johnson is able to craft every bit of his whodunit without compromise, refining every detail, and maximizing every turn. There’s minimal flash, but an undeniable sense of tongue-in-cheek sophistication to how everything is produced, never betraying the modern lens, despite the clear love of classic mystery sensibilities. What begins as a simple premise inevitably snowballs into a grand, sweeping mystery, always presenting more details, both subtle and blatant, and eventually coming together into a conclusion that feels shocking, but also rewarding and satisfying. To that end, Knives Out is also a movie that definitely rewards repeat viewings, where its many subtle nuances and nods to eventual developments can be best appreciated after you definitely miss several of them the first time.
Of course, where Johnson really excels in his direction with Knives Out however is in the realization of its personalities, which deftly walk the line between being relatable human beings, and over-the-top caricatures. There’s an unapologetic love of mystery tropes embraced with the personalities as well, from the eccentric, socially unique sleuth, to the sly culprit, to the oblivious cops, to the rich nuts, to the red herrings. There are elements to the characters of Knives Out that feel like they belong in a whodunit novel much more than actual modern reality, but the illusion behind the movie is nonetheless gripping, feeling real enough to pull you in, but exaggerated enough to make you feel like you’re enjoying a theatrical mystery that’s both amusing and sharp.
Knives Out is an amazing re-framing of classic ideas with a modern style. The detail behind its mystery is engrossing, and its many personalities all offer their own bizarre charm, particularly lead sleuth, Benoit Blanc, who positively begs for further adventures on the big screen. Even as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot most notably have started to make their own big screen comebacks in recent years, Blanc truly feels like a cinematic sleuth for the modern age, one that’s exceptionally complemented by a worthy mystery of classic greed, mixed in with contemporary complication.
What’s most satisfying about Knives Out however is that it feels so original within the flashy modern cinematic landscape, yet also simultaneously proves that old-fashioned whodunit writing can still work in the modern era. As appealing as classic sleuths like Holmes and Poirot have been for many, many decades, they’re mostly contained to period eras (even if Holmes has enjoyed some modern revisions with recent TV shows, Sherlock and Elementary), without the conveniences and sophistication of mobile devices, the internet, or cutting-edge forensic technology. Sure, today’s television procedurals have somewhat evolved from old-school whodunits, but on the big screen, classic mystery flavouring like this is very difficult to find in its purest form, least of all realized as well as it is in Knives Out.
Knives Out does demand a bit of patience in its opening stretch, which requires some time to effectively hook you into its mystery, but once you’re there, you’re there for the ride. This is a methodical, painstakingly-realized murder mystery movie that isn’t afraid to take its time, and rewards those paying attention, while still finding ways to trip up your expectations. This movie presented the kind of experience that I didn’t realize I missed, and with such a satisfying result from Benoit Blanc’s first big screen mystery, I can only hope that he finds his way to another one before long.
- Awesome cast of characters, headlined by the instantly memorable Benoit Blanc
- Smart whodunit mystery with satisfying progression
- Excellent direction with incredible attention to detail
- Some slow stretches in the first act