Another great work from a filmmaker who clearly loves the mystery genre!
On his 85th birthday, successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey invites his family to celebrate. To call this family dysfunctional would be inaccurate, as they are constantly at each others throats over Thrombey’s fortune. On the next morning, Marta, the housekeeper, walks in and finds Thrombey dead on his couch in what looks like an act of murder. When celebrated detective Benoit Blanc is called in to investigate, everyone in the Thrombey family becomes a suspect. The real question, though, is…..whodunit?
Rian Johnson has made quite a career for himself as a filmmaker with only a few films. His directorial debut, Brick, was a neo-noir murder mystery, and a very fine film to start out with. Despite a rather middling follow-up with 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, he made a significant leap forward with the groundbreaking sci-fi thriller, Looper. Now, just two years after writing and directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Johnson has gone back to his murder mystery roots with his latest writing and directing effort, Knives Out. All that can be said is that it is a welcome return to form.
What is wonderful about Knives Out is how it works both as a throwback to whodunit mysteries from the likes of Agatha Christie, and as a cleverly constructed film in its own right. The film immediately hooks the audience within the first five minutes and then, little by little, carefully reveals information crucial to the mystery at heart. One can’t help but admire the sheer artistry that went into the crafting of the story and characters, and to reveal how the story develops would be an injustice to any potential viewers.
If one is not a fan of murder mysteries, Knives Out is possibly not going to win them over, because the film is a slow burn in places. However, the film manages to keep the story interesting with meticulous photography and dialogue is so sharp (ahem!) that it slyly draws attention away from the aesthetics. The film also makes some interesting choices in terms of editing, particularly in the sequence where Blanc and his fellow detectives interrogate the family members following the murder. As the detectives ask questions, the film cuts to different family members answering said questions, with no real sense of stability. In the wrong hands, this could be messy, but as the film plays out, it becomes clear that Johnson has carefully laid all the pieces out for the audience to play along with the investigation.
One might remember Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which hit the screens in 2017. While entertaining and exceptionally well-shot, it didn’t place as much focus on the mystery aspect as it should have. With Knives Out, Johnson kept a strong, firm grip on the core of the story, and managed to keep it both compelling and unpredictable, not to mention darkly humorous. Regardless of what one might think of Rian Johnson’s work (given the polarized response to The Last Jedi), one can’t argue that he is a true risk-taker.
The cast is quite an ensemble, with the likes of Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Plummer to name a few. What is nice is that each member has equal opportunity to shine, and their respective scenes help audiences understand why they love these actors in the first place (Toni Collette’s scenes are especially enjoyable to watch.) The players who arguably get the most screen time are Ana de Armas as Marta and Daniel Craig as Blanc, and they play off of each other well in their shared scenes. All of the actors seem to be having a blast, and it appears Johnson is, too.
Knives Out is murder mystery filmmaking at its finest, and Rian Johnson continues to show that he has an extraordinary gift for storytelling. The cinematography and dialogue are top notch, it is well cast, and the mystery is compelling enough to get viewers through the slower scenes. Although a murder mystery may have limited replay value, as once it’s seen, the viewer knows “whodunit.” Regardless, it is still an inventive and brilliant piece of story construction that is sure to put a smile on crowd’s faces.