Writer/director Rian Johnson was met with some backlash after directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017, mainly due to an overwhelming response from fans who were upset about the film not resembling the Star Wars from their childhood. As a result, many viewers turned their back on Johnson, despite presumably never having seen Brick or Looper. Everyone wants to trash an indie filmmaker when they’re inexplicably given a $250 million budget, and no one wants to go watch the films that got them the job in the first place. Regardless of how you felt about The Last Jedi, now we have Johnson truly back in his element with the taut, twisty, deliriously entertaining whodunit Knives Out.
Renowned mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party. Despite the police ruling the case a suicide, an anonymous party hires famed private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc initially stays in the background listening to the Thrombey family’s testimonies, and he becomes increasingly convinced there’s something afoot, and every member of the obscenely wealthy Thrombey clan is a suspect.
Knives Out boasts an insane supporting cast – Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Lakeith Stanfield. While Johnson utilizes his giant ensemble more effectively than similar films have, nobody I’ve mentioned so far is the star of the show. Ana de Armas plays Marta, Harlan’s caretaker. Her character is really the audience’s way into this crazy family, and she’s the emotional core of this story. I don’t want to give lots of details about her performance and why she’s great, but trust me on this one. She’s a true tour-de-force, and you will be hearing her name a great deal moving forward.
The central complaint I’d heard going into this film was that the supporting cast wasn’t utilized well enough, and we barely spend any time with many of the supporting characters. Having heard this criticism before going into the movie, I found that we got more time with everyone than I was expecting. I definitely wouldn’t have minded another 20 minutes or so to develop supporting characters further. You begin to miss people like Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Colette when they’re offscreen for extended stretches, and you’d like nothing more than for one of them to pop in and wryly comment on what’s happening. Alas, there can always be too much of a good thing. In the end, the time we spend with these characters is sufficient and each moment matters and not a second is wasted.
Daniel Craig is doing everything right in his performance that Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express did wrong. Like Branagh, he’s doing the comically over-the-top accent, but in a way that doesn’t feel obnoxious or self-indulgent. Craig seems so happy he’s the lead in something besides a Bond film, and Johnson has established interest to continue this character’s journey in sequels that would show the Benoit Blanc character solving individual mysteries. I would be happy to watch five more of these.
Chris Evans, coming off his massively successful multi-year arc playing Captain America, is essentially the third lead here. Playing Ransom, the vain, vapid and cruel grandson of Harlan, he’s an absolute delight to watch. It’s absolutely no accident that this is the first time audiences are seeing Evans since his final bow in the Marvel films. Instead of playing the lovable hero, he’s the jerk who is more than content ruining the lives of his equally rotten family. Evans is doing an excellent job at subverting audience expectations of him, and if he’s able to continue giving surprising, nuanced performances like this, his career will comfortably move far beyond Marvel movies.
The production design of the Thrombey mansion is also breathtakingly detailed. This is a very old, stunning gothic mansion that has plenty of bells and whistles that take the audience into unexpected places narratively. While Knives Out will probably prove too slight to act as a real awards contender, this is quickly going to end up on my list of favorite films of the year. A darkly cynical comic nail-biter, Knives Out is probably the most fun you’ll have at the movies this fall.