Knives Out

Knives Out ★★★★½

With Brick, he effortlessly combined high school drama with a ‘40s-style mystery noir. With “Ozymandias”, he crafted one of the best episodes of “Breaking Bad”. With The Brothers Bloom, he added a sense of quirkiness to the con artist subgenre. With Looper, he took the concept of time travel and turned it on its ear. With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he subverted expectations and made us expect the unexpected in a grand way. Now, writer/director Rian Johnson takes the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit and brings it into the modern world with an expertly crafted, breathlessly surprising and disarmingly, darkly hilarious murder mystery. I’m talking about Knives Out!

On the night after celebrating his 85th birthday, renowned mystery novelist Harlan Trombley (Christopher Plummer) dies in his room in what appears to be a suicide....or so it seems. Though police detectives Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) & Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) doesn’t suspect foul play at first, an anonymous individual has hired Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate. A private detective who’s been called the last of the gentlemen sleuths, Blanc has his suspicions and does suspect foul play and believe that Harlan’s family has something to do with his death. Was it his daughter, real estate mogul Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis)? Was it her husband Richard (Don Johnson), the philanderer who helps with her business? Was it his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), the acting CEO of the publishing company? Was it his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), the lifestyle guru and influencer? Was it his granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford), the liberal arts college student? Was it his youngest grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell), the super right-wing troll who’s always on his phone? Was it his older grandson, the spoiled, jerkish playboy Ransom (Chris Evans)? Or could it be his own caring nurse and confidante Marta (Ana de Armas)? Any one of them could’ve been responsible for Harlan’s death and each one have a possible motive to commit murder and that’s exactly what a master detective like Benoit Blanc is going to find out.

There’s nothing like an old fashioned, old school murder mystery and while it’s set in modern times, it doesn’t feel like a modern murder mystery. This is like an classic mystery akin to something like Agatha Christie but with a sly, sometimes twisted sense of humor. It’s the same kind of old to new mix that Johnson done way back in 2005 with his first feature, Brick, which combined a high school movie with the hard boiled dialogue of a classic film noir (think John Hughes meets Dashiell Hammett). What makes it very entertaining is the mystery itself is very accessible and not too convoluted despite a merry-go-round of twists and turns throughout. It’s easy to follow but it throws you for a loop and that’s why Knives Out works so well. It helps to have a very capable director & writer like Rian Johnson at the helm as well. He is able to balance mystery, humor and even a little social commentary throughout without slowing things down to a screeching halt. 

Even better, the film has the best ensemble cast of the year, aside from others from this year. Each member of the cast gets a moment to shine equally and everyone gets to deliver some very stellar performances, even getting to show a side of themselves that we never see in any of their other performances. Craig forgoes that dark and brooding side that we’ve seen in the recent “James Bond” movies and plays Benoit Blanc like Columbo meets Sherlock Holmes, if Holmes was a sharp dressed Southern gentleman and in turn, provide his most delightful performance. We know Evans as the sterling, honest and goodest do-gooder Captain America but here, he plays probably the worst person in the world, a kind of handsome jerk of a man. Miles away from being the Star-Spangled Man, Ransom makes for quite an rage-inducing, razor-tongued, slightly despicable foil for our private eye. However, regardless of how many recognizable actors are in this ensemble and regardless of how good they are in this movie, they are all matched AND topped by a electrifying star-making performance by Ana de Armas as Marta. While she’s been working for most of the decade, most notably as hologram girlfriend Joi in Blade Runner 2049, this is the role that will have her name be remembered for a very long time. Benoit Blanc may be the sleuth of the film but this is de Armas’ movie and she carries this film on her shoulders, showing a large amount of emotional range and being in sync with both Craig & Plummer and going toe to toe with Evans & company. With awards season underway, I wouldn’t be surprised if her name is thrown into the fray around the time of announcements for both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Yes, she is THAT good. 

Knives Out is not just a entertaining, jaw-dropping and downright funny mystery but also one of the best films of year and as the year and decade draws to a close, that’s not hyperbolic praise. This is genuine honesty. It is definitely one of the best movies this year and will go down as one of the best of the decade. I recommend seeing it on the big screen to get the full experience of watching a classic whodunnit in a movie theater. Rian Johnson, you’ve done it again, you great, damn genius!

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