Murder mysteries have been a staple in storytelling for as long as storytelling has been in existence (or at least it seems). Why? Humans are a curious lot, so pretending to be a master sleuth for a couple of hours as we attempt to figure out what happened before the big reveal can be quite an exhilarating experience. When it’s done correctly, the pieces are placed perfectly throughout as to throw us off the scent, even when the clues are right their in clear daylight. When done poorly, you don’t have to be an eagle-eyed viewer to know who did it ten minutes into the story. Rian Johnson’s new film, Knives Out, slips somewhere in the middle — although the big reveal feels a bit anticlimactic, the ride getting there sure is a blast.
It’s structured that way on purpose. Johnson takes everything we know of a good murder mystery and twists those tropes in an odd and fantastic manner so as to completely keep us off-guard. The mystery in question involves the death of Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy patriarch found one morning in his study with his throat slashed. As the film unfolds, the most shocking moment isn’t the a-ha moment at the end of the film, but the point in which Johnson decides to reveal what happened to Harlan.
As Harlan puts it, “Sometimes a person doesn’t know the difference between the real knife and the fake one.” It’s setup early on by Harlan’s eldest child, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), that she can’t but help to think this is just one of Harlan’s games he likes to play with her, making her believe that there’s more to her father’s death; as if this is just another one of his novels and there will eventually be some big reveal that will happen at any time.
Johnson plays with these sentiments gleefully throughout the process as the audience tries desperately to figure out what is and isn’t real, and by proxy, what direction the film is actually going.
The whose-who begins right away when the detectives on the case (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) invite all of the family members back to Harlan’s house a week after his death, even after they have all but ruled the death a suicide. Stanfield and Segan play like a Laurel and Hardy team of keystone cops; Stanfield being the straight arrow detective that doesn’t see anything amusing about anything, while Segan continuously fan-boys out over the ties between Harlan and his bestselling novels.
Linda is just one of three siblings who all believe their own sordid lies about who they are as individuals and what they meant to their father. She is married to Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), a man basically living off his wife’s income as the owner of a successful real estate company, who may or may not be the doting, loving husband he pretends to be. Together they have a self-absorbed son, Ransom (Chris Evans, having a blast playing an entitled shmuck), who skips the funeral because he’s upset by something his grandfather told him the night of his death.
Harlan’s youngest son is Walt (Michael Shannon), a self-made business owner if you classify self-made as being given the reigns of your father’s publishing company. Everyone in the family despises Walt for that very reason; no one believes he is deserving of the company. What they don’t realize is that none of that may matter, as Harlan may have taken the company away from Walt over a dispute about selling the adaptation rights of his books. Walt also has a creepy son (Jaeden Martell) who spends all of his time on his phone.
Then there’s Joni (Toni Collette) and her spoiled daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), who has been receiving tuition payments for years after Joni’s husband died. Joni relies so much on that tuition that she would be devastated if Harlan ever decided to stop providing it to her. Just the thought of it makes her already high-strung socialite personality that much more heightened, and Collette does a tremendous job of chewing as much scenery as she can without being over-the-top annoying.
Finally, there’s Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armes), who spent her time not just caring for Harlan’s medical needs, but his emotional ones as well. She is, in no uncertain terms, the daughter Harlan never had. It helps that Marta also has an affliction against lying; that is, even the thought of lying makes her literally vomit. It makes for a terrific juxtaposition, setting her apart from the rest of the family, all of whom have no qualms against deceit if it helps them improve their lot in life.
This first act could have felt overtly expositional, but Johnson carries the film with a delicate hand, providing the actors enough room to play with their characters in order to get to know them through the subtle nuances of the way they carry themselves, how they speak and what words they use during the interrogations.
Nothing is more telling than in how each one reacts to the mysterious man in the back of the room, hitting a piano key whenever he thinks the person may be lying about something. This man is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator hired anonymously to get to the truth behind what happened that fateful night.
Blanc, as you would expect, doesn’t fall for any of the family’s BS, choosing to keep Marta close by his side as he investigates what happened because he knows she’ll either tell the truth or face the consequences. He is set up to be the proxy for the audience, and Craig pulls off a masterful performance in both dramatic and comedic timing. He is the center of cynicism from which the entire film is built, leading us step-by-step to the brilliantly executed final reveal.
Full of terrific performances, the “dumbest car chase ever”, and a twist that comes way earlier than anyone might expect, Knives Out plays like a murder mystery written by someone toying with a group of people they utterly dislike. Harlan wants nothing more than to ween his children off the teat of his success so as to build their own empires as he once did; the only way to do that is play one last devilish game with the lot of them, making for one enjoyable ride through the bowels of entitlement culture.
My Grade: A
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Next week, new movies include Playmobile: The Movie and Aeronauts. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.