Rian Johnson’s whodunnit of Knives Out is a love-letter of a murder mystery that broadcasts an affinity for the genre while still holding a sharp edge all it’s own. While it plays with the material and finds some of the dark humor within such a scenario, there’s a real sense of danger and intrigue throughout to walk on its own as a compelling tale. There’s a brilliant balance to the screenplay, written by Johnson, where the film can easily shift between the wittiest of biting commentary and simply enjoy the bluntness of Chris Evans telling each member of his family to “eat shit.”
The scenario seems fairly standard for a tale of murder and inheritance but with some modern and hilarious stagings as well as some crisp pacing. Consider how the film opens with the elderly crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) already dead, slashed from the throat. We’re not introduced to any of the family surrounding this death on the man’s birthday, arriving at the same spot where the cunning Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) enters the scene. With his Southern drawl and cute little eccentricities, he slowly begins engaging with the suspects of the family. All of them had something to gain from Harlan’s death considering his inheritance was going through some changes. The ruling of suicide seems too simple. There’s foul play at play for sure.
Without getting into the specifics of the characters, if only to spare spoilers as to who truly done it, I have to discuss how fantastic this all-star casting is. Chris Evans is perhaps the most charismatic of the lot as the cackling outsider of the family, delighting in watching them tear each other apart over the future of finances. Jamie Lee Curtis has a no-nonsense sternness that can easily be triggered if the police ask too many questions during her time of grieving. Michael Shannon, always a great actor, gives off a performance that is equal parts desperate and intimidating, stumbling forward with his cane in somewhat horrifying fashion. Ana de Armas has real pluck as the fearful caretaker of Harlan that you hope she’s not a suspect. Toni Collette makes the perfect kind of modern hippie in her liberal persona that is built well enough to clash with the believably dated conservative values of Don Johnson’s character. All of them perform so admirably that you can’t help but join in with Evans’ smirking at it all.
Aiming to deceive and surprise, the film keeps a stellar pace. The first act is exceptionally engaging, shirking the usual dry establishment of characters and favoring a Rashomon style questioning where Blanc is never given the whole story. The twists are brilliantly staged so that even when the mystery seems solved by the second act, it’s genuinely pleasing to discover there’s more to this plot. Even for dealing with such a dark subject of murder, as well as some arson and car chases thrown in for good measure, there are plenty of charming quirks tossed into the picture, from Craig’s brief bit of singing to Armas’ inability to lie which can trigger her to vomit. It’s easy to tell Johnson had a lot of fun stirring all these elements together.
Once Knives Out finally reveals its mystery, there’s no denying that the film doesn’t go the extra mile to be vicious in an eat-the-rich narrative. Politics of the era becomes a talking point and the family bickers with each other as either clueless liberals of misguided intentions or confounding conservatives of bitter talking points about how those immigrants should be in cages. Their children take on the oddest qualities for not having fallen far from those trees, the liberal daughter being a desperate mooch and the conservative son being an alt-right troll that is constantly on his phone, most likely in the middle of a cyberbullying spree. Sure, the film is certainly making a political statement but one that is so hilariously woven into a murder mystery of bickering characters who deserve to be taken down a peg. In a year that has already seen a number of masterful commentaries on the class struggle (Ready or Not, Parasite), Knives Out is by far the wittiest, slickest, and wonderfully wicked in its own genre.