Heading into 2019, “Knives Out” was one of my most anticipated films of the year. After seeing what writer-director Rian Johnson was capable of doing with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I was ready to go all in on whatever he had planned next. Plus, who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned whodunnit?
With so much riding on a single movie, I was clearly setting myself up for disappointment, right? Well, that wasn’t the case.
In “Knives Out,” Johnson has crafted a brilliant, fast-paced comedy-thriller capable of perfectly modernizing the classic murder mystery.
When legendary crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) falls dead just after his 85th birthday celebration, smooth-talking detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is anonymously hired to find the culprit. The thing is, there are plenty of suspects and even more motives, thanks to Thrombey’s massive fortune and the ample number of relatives in line to inherit their own chunk of change.
Could it be a bitter son like Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) who was just forced out of his father’s publishing company? Or maybe defensive son-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) who Thrombey has just caught in an extramarital affair? How about a widowed daughter-in-law like Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) who’s finally been weaned off the family payroll?
The possibilities are endless and that’s where the fun begins, as Blanc and his partner, Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), have to sift through the alibis to determine the true killer.
The one person no one suspects is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Thrombey’s quiet and respectful nurse who’s grown to feel more like part of the billionaire’s family than his real relatives do. As a result, Blanc leans on Marta for direction and insight on each of the family members throughout the investigation.
“Knives Out” may have a star-studded ensemble, with names like Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis and Katherine Langford not even mentioned yet, but make no mistake, it’s entirely Craig and de Armas’ film.
Craig’s campy Southern drawl and flamboyant crime-solving spirit will captivate audiences and demand attention in every single scene. After “Logan Lucky” and now this, can we all just agree to make Craig put on a ridiculous country twang every couple of movies? At the very least, we need a Benoit Blanc spinoff series as soon as possible.
De Armas, on the other hand, holds the screen with her earnest, innocent presence. Johnson’s script places her at the center of the mystery as the audience’s morale compass, the only player without a motive to kill Thrombey. As such, she becomes the film’s protagonist and will have audiences rooting for her through it all – even if she knows more than she’s letting on.
As much as Craig and de Armas may control the film, it’s impossible not to mention Evans’ magnetic appearance as Ransom Drysdale, Thrombey’s spoiled grandson. Evans is mentioned throughout the film’s opening act, but doesn’t actually appear until about an hour in, but when he finally does, he comes in hot. Anyone who’s seen the trailer for “Knives Out” has seen him repeatedly telling each of his family members to “eat shit,” and that’s just the start. Evans bursts into the film throwing absolute heaters and no other person on screen can match his intensity hurling insult after insult and making nonstop wisecracks.
It’s clear from the very start Johnson has a strong handle on the story and where it will take viewers. He treats the mystery as a game and while the audience may be playing opposite him, he’s always three steps ahead, placing pieces in perfect position for new twists and surprises.
Early in the film, Johnson has Craig’s Blanc sit down with each of the suspects and methodically reveals every person’s motive for murdering Thrombey. By starting things out like this, it sufficiently confuses audiences by overwhelming them with possibilities, but works to get their mind racing as they try to solve it before Blanc can. Then, at the 50-minute mark, Johnson unconventionally reveals the true chain of events that led to Thrombey’s demise. With 80 minutes left, it’s clear this won’t be the final twist, but it begins a chain of events dealing with the fallout and a series of subsequent reveals.
The reason this works so well for Johnson, is that despite giving audiences 90 percent of the information needed to solve the mystery during the film’s first half, the pacing never slows. Instead, after that reveal, things become more intense. It’s not until the final credits roll that viewers can sit back and try to process all the twists and surprises they just endured.
Another thing that makes “Knives Out” so fun is its stylization. Essentially, Johnson has taken the old-fashioned murder mystery à la Agatha Christie and transplanted it into the 21st century. The swanky estates, colorful and elaborate outfits and noir feeling is still present, but so are Apple Watches, vapes and Netflix.
“Knives Out” is an incredibly satisfying, edge-of-your-seat thriller that breathes new life into the murder mystery genre. Think “Clue,” but make it 2019. Thanks to a cast full of stellar performances and Johnson’s masterful direction, “Knives Out” is quite possibly the most fun you’ll have at the theater this holiday season.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.