Knives Out

Knives Out ★★★★★

Every once in a while, a film comes along that makes you think, "This is my movie. This was made for me." It's not just that I was a huge admirer of the whole cast, as well as the writer/director, though that certainly sweetened the pot. But as a lifelong Agatha Christie fanatic, who's read all the books and seen every episode of David Suchet's Poirot, this film spoke to me on a fundamental level.

I went into this movie with insurmountable hype. Incredibly, it surpassed every one of my expectations. Knives Out is an extraordinary movie, a taut, tense, intelligent film, one that lays all its cards out on the table in such a manner that you don't even realize you've been told the solution to the whole affair until much later in the film. In true Christie fashion, this is a murder mystery that plays completely fair with its audience.

The murder in question has to do with Christopher Plummer. He plays a famous writer, patriarch of a large, eccentric and combative family, who dies unexpectedly on the night of his 85th birthday. It looks initially to be an open-and-shut case, as Plummer appears to have sliced his own throat, but Daniel Craig - himself a deeply eccentric private detective named Benoit Blanc - isn't so sure. And since the entire family, as well as the help, were present in his gothic-like house to celebrate his birthday, everyone is a suspect.

What a miracle this movie is. I've long bemoaned about how hard it is for cinema to adapt my all-time favorite genre to the big screen; in recent years, we've Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express, a very pretty movie which fundamentally failed to translate the internal machinations of that labyrinthian plot to the big screen, to the point where Hercule Poirot seemed less like a frighteningly brilliant detective than he did a magician who was really good at randomly guessing. Of all people, I think it was Guy Ritchie who actually came the closest to capturing what I so dearly love about whodunnits and murder mysteries; the actual process of solving the damn thing. The chain of deductive reasoning that begins with a problem, continues with clue after clue, forming links in the chain, before finally presenting you with a solution that makes perfect sense.

Knives Out is absolutely steeped in love for the genre. Plummer's house, the scene of the crime, is stocked to the brim with genre knickknacks, including but not limited to the laughing sailor animatronic from Sleuth, which can occasionally be seen in the background of scenes. These kinds of references work, I think, because they're not exclusionary; I'm able to look at the thing and say, "Hell yeah, I remember Sleuth! Good times, good times." But someone who's never seen that film can see the animatronic and enjoy another cool visual representation of Christopher Plummer's profession.

This is an ingenious script, on a good number of layers. On its surface, the thing is filled with more witty one-liners and withering put-downs than most straight-up comedies I've seen this year. But underneath all that, this is a film with one of the finest structures I've seen in forever, one which knows exactly how much information to dole out, and when.

It's also got one of the best casts in years, all of whom are playing the film at just the right register. Daniel Craig seems almost rejuvenated by this movie; after watching him all but sleepwalk his way through Spectre, seeing him practically dance across the screen was a particular delight. We're all familiar with the Sherlock Holmes archetype, but what Craig's doing here is closer to a reimagining of Hercule Poirot, the "armchair sleuth" with a distinctive as hell accent.

But he's not the lead. That honor goes to Ana de Armas, who made an impact a few years ago in Blade Runner 2049. She plays Marta, Plummer's personal nurse and "hired best friend," and I do not want to reveal a single detail about what happens to her, or the point of view we eventually take while on her journey. Suffice it to say, while Craig is a true and true detective, she's almost playing a Hitchcock heroine.

Most of the headlines will probably go to the main family of suspects, for understandable reasons. Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette are kind of playing opposite ends of the rich spectrum, whose goals are ultimately more comparable than they might like to admit. Michael Shannon uses his finely-honed skill at playing a man simultaneously gentle and menacing in order to play a character who's almost impossible to get a read on, obviously making him pitch-perfect as a murder suspect. And Chris Evans, free from the constraints of playing ultimate goody two-shoes Captain America, gives a delightfully wicked turn as the black sheep of the family.

The tonal control of this thing is also to be admired. The film is funny in a way that never ever undermines the underlying tension and atmosphere of the central mystery. This is a movie that manages to pull off a rather extraordinary balancing act, one that lets it be serious without ever becoming a joyless slog, and funny without ever dipping into self-parody.

It's also a movie with a social conscious, which I didn't mind one bit. This obviously will vary from person to person, but to me, all the political shop-talk felt authentic, like the kinds you get into at those awkward Thanksgiving dinners. And it's not like this is unique to Knives Out; lest we forget, Christie herself was something of a political writer, albeit one of a slightly more conservative bent.

More than anything, Knives Out works because it is just a cracking good mystery, one that layers twist upon twist upon twist, and gets away with it because all these reversals and double-bluffs rest upon a rock-solid logical foundation. The mystery is fair, and it works. And it's a hell of a lot of fun to unravel. It's been too long since we've had a wholly original, pure whodunnit. Superhero fatigue seems to be setting in hardcore; would it be too much to hope that this ushers in a new Hollywood trend?

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