Writer-director Rian Johnson had a lot to prove with his followup to one of the most needlessly controversial and weirdly divisive blockbusters in recent memory, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Producing a modern take on the rye, irreverent whodunit murder mystery most closely associated with Agatha Christie and Herbert Ross, there were a dedicated few eyeing Knives Out, his latest, as Johnson’s folly — the collosal misfire that would vindicate their contrarian take on the space war movie he made previously.
Luckily for those of us who aren’t weird obsessives over things that don’t matter, Knives Out is uproarious entertainment cloaked in delightful menace and a meticulously intricate plot that comes together effortlessly. Functioning as a deconstruction of the mystery genre that underlines its enjoyable absurdity while never drifting too far into the waters of cheap parody, Johnson’s film is pure, darkly comedic enjoyment from beginning to end.
Essentially, Knives Out is about how a family’s dysfunctions cultivated over decades of personal gripes can explode to the surface after its paterfamilias is taken out of the equation. Head of the Thrombey household and the one responsible for the family’s extensive fortune from his mystery novel empire, Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is discovered dead the morning after his birthday party under suspicious means after his assembled clan is brought together for a night of uncomfortable civilities.
With enough tension in the air to slice with a dagger and each prominent Thrombey having his or her own grudge against their financial lifeline, Knives Out sets up a suspicious string of red herrings and backstabbing hearsay that hilariously implicate all members as potential culprits. Focalized on Harlan’s caregiver, Marta (Ana De Armas), as the last one to see him alive and the intrepid and suave master sleuth, Detective Bemoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), determined to uncover the mystery, the film delights in peeling back the contrivances of the whodunit setup in order for its cast of characters to shine in this unlikely predicament.
For obvious reasons it is a challenge to discuss the genius of Johnson’s script and its pointed subversion of the expectant beats of the whodunit murder mystery without devolving its expert construction. Just know that when it has its pieces in place, the various players assembled, and the central question of its investigation established, it manages to surprise in its execution while never losing sight of the classic formulas of the subgenre from where it is drawing ample inspiration.
Knives Out is expecting its audience to know what they have gotten into (remember how the press labelled this as “a Rian Johnson whodunnit”?) and playing off those generic expectations into bold, farcical territory. The pleasures of this film don’t stem from the satisfaction of wrapping up the mystery, but rather from charting the flow of its investigation, appreciating the complex fabrication of the mystery, and reveling in the personalities who both aid and disrupt the investigation based on their own petty reasons.
Speaking of, Johnson’s inspiration by the Agatha Christie adaptations is clear because, much like those films, he has assembled a stellar, brilliant cast of character actors who bring such rotten glee to the maladjusted Thronbey. Working off a natural, belligerent chemistry with one another and a script loaded with gutting quips and dialogue, the film gives its standout cast a moment to shine in equal measure, making sure no one in this ensemble overshadows the others.
There are standouts, of course — Chris Evans’ entitled and snarky Ransom, Jamie Lee Curtis’ icy and maternal Linda, Daniel Craig’s debonair gumshoe Blanc — but the ensemble’s best strength is its magnificent interplay, cutting each other down with vicious joy.
On top of one of the most devilishly clever films in recent memory, Knives Out is also a comedic masterpiece. The jokes from Johnson’s script come in rapid succession, underlining the absurdity of the investigation with well executed character and visual humor.
The film has a dry jocularity to it that’s reminiscent of the British mysteries that served as its inspiration; the glib nature with which it handles the murder offsets the genuine complexity of the case. It all works perfectly, and, thanks to the natural abilities of the cast, it all follows through to a ridiculous climax that will set a theater into riotous laughter.