Rian Johnson’s latest whodunit flick is an entertaining ride full of clever storytelling and satisfying payoffs. Knives Out both captures the excitement and intrigue of mystery investigations, while also interweaving some timely social satire. Featuring an impressive ensemble, and some innovative writing and direction, this movie is a pure delight to experience.
The movie waste no time, immediately opening with the death in question. Rich mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found dead, from an apparent suicide, on the night of the 85th birthday. However, famed detective, Benoit Blac (Daniel Craig, with a glorious southern accent), is mysteriously called upon to investigate Harlan’s death as being a murder. And the prime suspects being interrogated are none other than Harlan Thrombey’s dysfunctional family. Meanwhile, Harlan’s nurse and friend, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) – who vomits whenever she lies – , is asked to assist Blanc. The investigation leads us through the chaotic mess that is the Thrombey family, and Marta’s complicated relationship with them.
Johnson makes a concentrated effort to position this story in our current day and age. His script filled with direct commentary on class and immigration, and other contemporary references. And apart from a couple heavy-handed moments, this works out quite well, naturally fitting with the story and characters.
The various Thrombey family members are amusingly insufferable, yet eerily identifiable. They’re all greedy, racists, jerks to say the least. Harlan’s daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son, Walt (Michael Shannon), and daughter-in-law, Joni (a hilarious, scene-stealing Toni Collete), all act like they’ve built themselves up from nothing. But in reality, they have just capitalized off Harlan’s wealth. And their various spouses and kids – like Ransom (Chris Evans) – are equally, if not more, reprehensible and selfish. Luckily, Johnson mocks just how despicable the Thrombey’s are, and doesn’t try to draw any sympathy. They are so oblivious to their abhorrent behaviours, and a lot of the movie’s sharp humour is fittingly at their expense. But with such a large cast, some characters do get lost in the shuffle, unfortunately.
In contrast, Marta is the kind, hard-working nurse, who is the only one who truly cares for Harlan outside of his money. Ana de Armas gives a breakthrough performance here, holding her own against the whole ensemble. She infuses her character with personality, heart and strength. Marta’s status as an immigrant with an undocumented mother provides the film’s main emotional stakes. This also creates an interesting, unsteady dynamic with the Thrombey’s.
The family claims to have a close, loving relationship with Marta, yet everyone mixes up which South American country she came from. They all talk about wanting to help her… until, of course, their wealth and power are threatened. The subtle and not-so-subtle hostility towards Marta makes it easy to despise the Thrombey’s, and the like. However, some of the immigration commentary comes off a bit half-baked. It is fun getting glimpses into Marta’s resourceful side and home life, but I wish we could of gotten a bit more from her.
From the storytelling side, the movie’s crisp execution is it’s big strength. Rian Johnson is able to maintain a constant sense of engagement and intrigue by providing the expected whodunit tropes, then taking the story in unexpected directions. And while there is a lot of exposition thrown at the viewer, it never feels stale or convoluted. There’s a nice balance of flashbacks, interrogations, and Blanc’s astute deductions to provide information in a way that entertains our curiosity. Also, basically every loose thread set up in the first act has a rewarding and clever payoff by the end, even if the final twist doesn’t feel quite as earned. Regardless, the closing shot of the movie is more than satisfying.
Knives Out will surely give murder-mystery fans the inventive story they crave. Combining classic whodunit tropes with some modern reinventions, Rian Johnson has crafted a slick and smart ride that is a definite must-see.