When I sat down in the theatre for my early screening of “Knives Out,” there were no trailers playing. There was a black screen staring back at me. The theatre manager came out and informed us that the projector had to be reset earlier and needed an extra 20 minutes. After about that length, he said it needed an additional 10, and that he would just set it to jump right into the movie. He handed out compensation to make up for the delay, and shortly thereafter the film started. It was refreshing for such an occurrence to be handled so professionally.
“Knives Out” is the most purely entertaining film of the year. It’s also a Rian Johnson film through and through, so if you’re still holding hatred against the director over “The Last Jedi,” you’ll probably dislike everything about it. Fortunately, I didn’t have any ill feelings to get over.
A murder has been committed at a mansion. The victim is Harlan Thrombey, a highly-successful author of – what else? – whodunit murder mysteries. The manner of death appears to be suicide, but not everyone is so convinced. There is a long list of suspects. Harlan’s children hardly show any grief – they seem more concerned about the will reading than anything else. Who will inherit the big fortune? Entitlement is a key theme here.
Rian Johnson’s style of filmmaking and storytelling obviously fits the whodunit genre. There are plenty of opportunities for twists, and Johnson makes all of them feel almost natural. He turns the genre on its head in a way by giving the audience more information than usual early on in the film. Halfway through, the tension is cut due to Johnson’s reveal, and the film falls more into the suspense category. It very much stays an intellectual exercise, as we know the solution can’t be as simple as what we’ve been told. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you realize something doesn’t add up. The hardest part of any whodunit is sticking the landing, and fortunately, Johnson succeeds.
Everyone is at the top of their game here, from the stellar ensemble cast to the cinematographer and composer Nathan Johnson, Rian’s brother. I loved the soundtrack with its violins and classical roots – it expertly conveyed that sense of class and clash within the Thrombey family, as well as the dark mysteriousness of the events. It was refreshing to hear real instruments rather than a bunch of scratching sounds or loud synthesized drones. Steve Yedlin, who shot the film, does a wonderful job in showcasing the tension between characters and utilizing the claustrophobic and Gothic nature of the house to lend to the tone. Johnson’s discernable love for the genre fortunately doesn’t cause the film to be referential or overly self-aware in any way. He presents familiar locales and character types, but spins the narrative in the most original of ways. He subverts the characters just enough to make them feel fresh. Yes, I realize my use of the word “subvert” may trigger some “Last Jedi” haters.
Craig is instantly memorable as Detective Benoit Blanc, and Ana de Armas is terrific as Marta Cabrera, who seems at first to be a particularly useful plot device. In the hands of a lesser director, that could have easily been the case, but Johnson maneuvers the plot in a way that doesn’t rely on Marta’s character traits. You’ll know what I mean early on in the film. I’d talk about the other characters, but heading into “Knives Out” with no information was honestly a blessing, so I won’t mention any of the other performances. Suffice to say, everyone does a fantastic job, and they’re all hiding something, whether it’s pertinent to the case or not. There are so many layers to peel back with each of the characters, and sadly we don’t get to spend as much time with some as we do others, but alas that’s always the drawback with ensemble pictures.
The amount of humor is surprising, especially in a film that you would expect to rely more heavily on creating tension. I might even go so far as to call “Knives Out” the funniest film of the year. There are a lot of hilarious moments that are intelligent in their own right and are never the result of caricature. Johnson reminds us how mysteries like these were once genuinely surprising and entertaining, before each film in the genre became a parody of something before it. He also throws in some apt social commentary, typical of such murder mysteries dealing with the squabbles of high-class. Immigration is a topic of heated discussions, and is embedded in a way that cuts deeper than many of the other light jabs that could be heard on CNN or “Fox and Friends.” It’s palatably intertwined and doesn’t detract from the overall escapism of the picture.
It’s not far-out to say that logic occasionally gets pushed aside for a convenient plot twist, but that’s hardly an issue with Rian Johnson’s ode to Agatha Christie. It has all the moments we’d expect from a great murder mystery, and then some. Johnson is clearly having fun conforming to narrative expectations early on, then thwarting them as we move along. I had a great time with it, and I get the sense that this may not be the last time we see Benoit Blanc or the Thrombey family. Perhaps a sequel is in the works – “Knives In?” I’m in.