I was on hiatus when Star Wars: The Last Jedi first saw wide release. In fact, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was very specifically stated as a minor reason why I went on hiatus. Even before the film had been released, I knew that it was a critic-proof movie that I had nothing to gain from reviewing. And dear sweet gods above, did I dodge a bullet — even I could never have predicted the overwhelmingly toxic ongoing shitstorm kicked up by that movie. It’s become utterly impossible to voice any kind of opinion on Star Wars: Episode VIII, and luckily, I won’t have to go kicking up that particular hornet’s nest for another month.
Still, the subject is worth bringing up for one Rian Johnson, the writer/director of TLJ. As with the movie itself, separating fact from fiction with regards to Johnson has become nigh-impossible over the past two years. I’ve heard from reliable sources that he’s a misogynist egomaniac, and I’ve heard from reputable filmmakers that he’s a really sweet guy.
But regardless of all the rumors and hearsay, regardless of how I or anybody else feels about Rian Johnson, there’s one undeniable fact that remains true: Brick is fucking awesome. The Brothers Bloom is also really great, and Looper is pretty solid too. Say what you will about him, but there can be little doubt that Johnson is one hell of a filmmaker. I just don’t know if big-budget tentpoles are really his thing.
So here we are with Knives Out, in which Johnson goes back to his roots and gives us a straightforward whodunit potboiler. A murder mystery from the writer/director of Brick, with an additional fifteen years of experience and star power. Thus he’s able to assemble a phenomenal cast, comprised of such talents as Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher, Riki Lindhome, Katherine Langford, and motherfucking Frank Oz. Also, I’m pretty sure Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a voice-over cameo in there somewhere.
The premise is a tangled web and it’s gonna get messy, so get your scorecards ready and buckle up.
The Victim: Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. He’s a massively successful mystery thriller author with millions of books sold in dozens of different languages all over the world. He’s amassed a fortune worth several millions of dollars, he lives in a remote and extravagant mansion, and he invited his massive family over for his 85th birthday party. And at some point in the hours immediately following the party, he died under mysterious circumstances.
Suspects (Group 1): Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlan’s eldest child. She and her husband (Richard Drysdale, played by Don Johnson) are real estate moguls who’ve built up their own massive enterprise, though possible marital problems may be placing that business in jeopardy. It certainly doesn’t help that their son (inexplicably named Hugh Ransom Drysdale, played by Chris Evans) is the jackass playboy black sheep of the family.
Suspects (Group 2): The middle child of the family has been dead for several years, so we never meet him and he isn’t technically a suspect. He is survived by his wife (Joni Thrombey, played by Toni Collette), a vapid spoiled socialite with her own failing beauty treatment company. There’s also her daughter (Meg Thrombey, played by Katherine Langford), who’s going to college on Grandpa Harlan’s dime.
Suspects (Group 3): Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) is the youngest of Harlan’s children, married to the dim-witted Donna Thrombey (Riki Lindhome). They have a son (Jacob Thrombey, played by Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher), who doesn’t say much in person, but apparently spends all his time online as an incendiary alt-right troll. More importantly, Walt is responsible maintaining the rights, licenses, and published editions of his father’s written works. And much to Walt’s continuous chagrin, Harlan has repeatedly insisted on refusing all film and TV adaptations, thereby passing up potential billions of dollars.
(Side note: It’s amusing to note that this is the second time Michael Shannon has played father to Jaeden Lieberher, after the woefully underrated Midnight Special in 2016.)
The Detectives: LaKeith Stanfield is on hand as Lieutenant Elliott, a local detective who continues to insist that Harlan Thrombey’s death was a suicide. He’s assisted by Noah Segan in the role of Trooper Wagner, an obsessive fan of Harlan Thrombey and other murder mystery authors. But our main detective for the evening is Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig with a comically thick southern accent. Blanc is a world-renowned private detective who’s been hired by some unknown client (Unknown even to Blanc himself!) to investigate the death of Harlan Thrombey.
The Nurse: Our de facto protagonist is none of the above-named characters, but Marta, played by Ana de Armas. In his waning years, Harlan hired Marta to be his caregiver and loyal confidante. She’s a young woman from some unspecified country south of the border, working hard to support her undocumented mother (played by Marlene Forte).
It’s worth noting that with the exception of the detectives, Marta is the only one in the entire cast who’d have nothing to gain from Harlan’s death. Perhaps more importantly, Marta has some strange nervous gastrointestinal condition that makes it utterly impossible for her to lie. (Mystery Thriller 101: Every suspect is a liar.)
So you’d think Marta couldn’t possibly be a suspect and she’d have nothing to hide, right? Well, don’t bet on it.
For those keeping track, Frank Oz turns in a brief yet noteworthy performance as Harlan’s personal lawyer. We’ve also got K Callan as Harlan’s invalid mother, providing a bit of slightly ageist yet nonetheless welcome comic relief. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Edi Patterson as the housekeeper who may or may not know more than she’s letting on.
(Side note: In case you’re wondering, there is no butler.)
Am I missing anything? Did you get all that? Good.
Obviously, spoilers prevent me from going too much further into the plot and premise. Suffice to say that everything about this from a filmmaking perspective is positively golden. The camerawork is phenomenal, the editing is a master class, and the whole production design is bursting with character. The setups are devilishly intricate and the payoffs are deceptively simple. Hell, even the red herrings and throwaway gags pay off in satisfying and unexpected ways.
But for me, the true stroke of genius was in solving the death an hour in. There’s a flashback scene that clearly and unmistakably shows Harlan Thrombey’s death, shown in vivid detail before our very eyes. With half the movie left to go. Thus the family drama takes center stage, with the secrets and politics that arise from the direct aftermath of Harlan Thrombey’s demise. And as the ensuing drama unfolds, more loose ends start to unravel, leading to the question of whether there just might be more that we don’t know, and how any additional details could possibly square with what we’ve already seen.
Which brings us back to Marta. Without going too deeply into spoilers, it should be obvious that Harlan’s loyal caregiver plays a vital role in these proceedings, and the whole family is happy to treat her as one of their own. Even though none of them can seem to keep it straight which country she’s actually from.
They’re all too perfectly happy to take good care of her, but they’re utterly terrified at the possibility that any one of them may have to depend on her grace and compassion as their patriarch did. They’re all want to keep her around as their Token Colored Friend, just so long as she knows her place. As soon as they don’t have a use for her, she’s just another illegal immigrant.
There’s one noteworthy scene in which the family gets into a heated argument along political lines. And though he’s never mentioned by name, the terminology makes it perfectly clear that they’re bickering about our 45th president and his ahem immigration policy. Thus the filmmakers send the clear point that it’s not about Republicans or Democrats, red versus blue. When the chips are down, the white and wealthy of both political parties will unite to protect their property and keep the poor POC in their place.
It’s also worth noting that all of Harlan’s children and in-laws have their own businesses and call themselves self-made successes. This despite the fact that their father was fabulously wealthy and all of them would be dead broke without his ongoing support. It’s a flagrant hypocrisy that the movie explicitly calls them out on, thus serving as a huge thematic point and a prominent motive for any of them to commit murder. Genius.
Alas, with such a massive cast in such a convoluted plot, some actors are going to fall through the cracks. Case in point, Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher is already such a battle-tested talent at such a young age, I was genuinely disappointed to see how little he got here. Riki Lindhome is barely present, but of course a comic actor of Lindhome’s caliber can make a memorable performance with less. Edi Patterson blends into the wallpaper when she needs to, but she totally fails to make an impression the one time it matters.
The standout of the cast is unquestionably Ana de Armas, here shouldering a far more prominent and dynamic role than I’ve ever seen from her. I’ve seen some great supporting roles from her in the past (see: War Dogs and Blade Runner 2049), but this film is proof that she deserves to be a leading lady and pronto. Her development arc throughout the film was a joy to behold, and I love how the film incorporates race in a meaningful way without getting too preachy or slowing the film down. Marvelous work.
Everyone else in the cast is varying shades of camp. The actors all know exactly what movie they’re in, and they know they’re all playing characters who could potentially kill or be killed at any moment. They’re having a blast and they’re appropriately fun to watch. Easily the most prominent case in point is Daniel Craig, a thoroughly and unmistakably British man wielding a Kentucky-fried southern charm. The anachronism is inherently off-putting, and it leads the audience to wonder exactly how full of shit this detective really is. Kudos are also due to LaKeith Stanfield, who brings a welcome bit of calm and decorum to keep his character from being a cartoonishly bumbling stereotype. Instead, it’s Noah Segan playing the bumbling oaf, and the two play well off each other.
Knives Out is an old-fashioned whodunit with a distinctly modern style. The film has a lot to say about social inequalities in race and wealth, delivered in a boldly topical style that gives the film a timely thematic punch. The highly relevant themes, the stellar cast, the precision plotting, and the crackerjack editing all help to flavor a deeply satisfying mystery thriller.
Of course there are a few niggling plot holes and I can’t speak to how well it’ll hold up on repeat viewings. But it’s absolutely a movie you should see at least once, as quickly as possible.