[This is a repost of my review from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Knives Out opens today.]
The world needs more movies like Knives Out. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s supremely entertaining whodunit is one part Agatha Christie mystery, one part Hitchcock thriller, and one part broad comedy, but every aspect of the film is executed so perfectly, with such precision, that it coalesces into a remarkable, cohesive whole. The star-studded crowdpleaser is packed with delightful twists and turns, artfully steered by Johnson’s steady hand while tackling themes of American greed in between the audience’s guffaws and gasps. It’s an impeccably constructed roller coaster ride created by a mad (but meticulous) engineer, and when it ends you’ll immediately want to get back on. Simply put, this is one of the most entertaining films of the year.
The surprises that abound in Knives Out are part of the fun, so don’t worry, I’ll mostly be steering clear of plot and character specifics here. But the movie opens with the murder of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famous mystery author and patriarch of a large and very needy family. The rich tapestry of Thrombey’s offspring ranges from professional influencers to heir apparents, but it’s clear from the onset that all of them have built their lives and careers on the back of their grandfather’s hard work and immense fortune.
Since the film opens with the murder, Johnson uses the interrogation of the family by two detectives (the immensely charming duo of Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) as a way to introduce each individual, and it’s a masterstroke as we get insight into not only how each character sees himself or herself, but how they view each other. The detectives are flanked by an initially silent observer named Benoit Blanc, a semi-famous private detective with a knack for showmanship. He’s basically Johnson’s twist on Agatha Christie hero Hercule Poirot, but as played by Daniel Craig, Blanc’s keen eye for details is accentuated by a thick, Colonel Sanders-like accent. And Craig has a blast with the colorful role.
There’s not only not a single weak link in the entire ensemble, it’s also kind of impossible to choose an acting MVP. Craig swings for the fences and scores; Toni Collette is a hoot as the head of a Goop-like organization; and yes, Chris Evans is still supremely watchable, even though he’s playing something very different from Steve Rogers here. Ana de Armas is a surprising standout, and her character Marta—Harlan’s nurse—plays a key role throughout the film, with the Blade Runner 2049 actress rising to the occasion.
A film like Knives Out could fall apart if one vital piece is off-kilter, but thankfully Johnson and his filmmaking team show a masterful control of craft. The script is sharp and incisive, weaving themes relating to inherited wealth, privilege, and American greed throughout while still delivering 30 Rock-like levels of laughs-per-minute. The ensemble is completely dialed in, and while some characters are more broadly drawn than others (Don Johnson admitted at the film’s premiere that he feared he was playing his character too big until he saw Craig’s performance), the tight handle on the story and key moments of humanity ground the film perfectly.
Indeed, it’s the speed with which Knives Out moves and the ways in which the story continually surprises that keeps the film engrossing from start to finish, and it’s a testament to Bob Ducsay’s editing that not only does the film fly by, but each scene featuring the massive ensemble feels even-handed and clear. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography is unsurprisingly precise, navigating the menagerie of characters with a swath of perfectly framed close-ups. Nathan Johnson’s original score, meanwhile, delightfully pays homage to the whodunnit and murder mystery genres as a whole.
Knives Out also stands apart as unique in that it’s a murder mystery that knows it’s a murder mystery. Over the course of his career, Johnson has knowingly played with genre in each of his films. Brick is a high school-set noir in which the characters talk as if they’re in a film noir; The Brothers Bloom is a con man movie that plays a con on its audience; and even Star Wars: The Last Jedi challenges ideas central to the mythology of that franchise in exciting ways. In Knives Out, the family’s fortune was built on murder mysteries, and references abound to everything from Murder, She Wrote to Alfred Hitchcock. The characters inside this murder mystery have intimate knowledge of the murder mystery genre, and as Johnson plays with and upends tropes frequently found in these types of stories, Knives Out fits right in with the rest of his oeuvre.
Ultimately, while Knives Out is thematically rich, technically astounding, and superbly acted, it’s also just a complete and total blast of a movie. This is a film that’s designed to be enjoyed in a packed theater, surrounded by strangers sharing in the twists, turns, and hilarity that ensues. But it is striking that Knives Out is so effective at being a crowdpleaser in contrast to other studio blockbusters that cost at least twice as much and are only half as fun. This is an original story with no explosions, space ships, or aliens, just extremely talented actors in rooms spouting words written by one guy. And yet it’s one of the most purely satisfying and enjoyable moviegoing experiences I’ve had in recent memory.