Director and writer Rian Johnson returns to the suspense-thriller genre with a quirky, modern murder mystery filled with gorgeous settings and plenty of humor. I had my doubts upon learning Johnson was involved, especially in light of this film’s incredibly high amount of critical praise—Star Wars: The Last Jedi was exciting but felt unfocused, and Looper felt like two very different and very poorly conjoined films—but Knives Out is a tremendous improvement, being simple and mostly straightforward to follow, almost to excess in a mystery movie. Despite the near-endlessly amusing characterization often being sent to tactless or vulgar extremes, the comedic elements complement the brisk story and surrounding drama without ever feeling disruptive.
The peculiar presentation instantly takes on its own identity.
Renowned publisher Harlan Thrombey has been found dead! Panic ensues, suspects and possible motives are assembled, and police and a private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), are on the case. The cast contains a rainbow of personalities and backgrounds, from a mother with questionable financial practices to a boy who spends nearly all his time on his smartphone, and it makes the characters enjoyable to watch even as the setup of motivations and alibis is less complicated than the movie’s scale would allow, arguably to its credit.
Most of the film centers on the testimonies of a few core characters, one of whom gets an uninterrupted block of time that’s about half an hour long; the detectives don’t even interrupt her recollections to ask what happened next until she’s actually done talking, which is an interesting and welcome bit of stylistic restraint for the genre. It’s interesting to have such straightforward storytelling in a murder mystery—there are few subplots, the ones present aren’t complicated and arguably aren’t brought to fruition (there’s a big one that’s left dangling for the sake of an otherwise solid joke), and there aren’t any intertwining story threads placed alongside one another as Rian Johnson’s own Last Jedi did—but it also makes the core premise seem more simplistic than an audience member, never mind a detective, would reasonably expect it to be.
Humor is used very well but is thematically off-putting.
There are a lot of running gags throughout the movie, from playful dogs (showcased without clear context in the opening, then later explained and used to help characterize some of the humans) to social-media trolling and even vomiting. The dialogue and story don’t have quite as many recurring elements as The Social Network, but they come close. It’s worth noting that there’s some very dark humor made at the interest of some characters, one of whom is the butt of jokes made about immigrants and people who can’t admire their fathers [camera pans over to black man] while another, a South American woman, is cruelly called a “dirty anchor baby.” There’s also a very strange pair of references to a teenager supposedly masturbating in a bathroom. An extended, Tarantino-esque dialogue exchange in the middle of the movie shifts into a discussion of illegal immigration that—even as it helps develop and distinguish certain characters as being pragmatic or compassionate—may be unsettling or too close to home for some viewers.
Regardless, Craig plays his role as a private investigator impressively, alternating between intimidation and empathy as necessary, and he doesn’t let his humaneness get in the way of his detective duties—usually. (The film glosses over a plot issue where one of the crime suspects is allowed to touch a piece of evidence while being escorted and ends up sabotaging it, and some of Blanc’s later decisions during one of the film’s few relatively fast-paced scenes call his competence as a detective into question.) Other performances from Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, and Ana de Armas (“Joi” from Blade Runner 2049) also adeptly showcase a variety of personalities and emotions, especially de Armas since much of the film centers on her interactions with the Thrombey family and its departed patriarch.
The film’s lack of clutter immensely benefits its aesthetics.
The movie’s presentation, primarily set in and around the Thrombey family mansion, is consistently lovely from start to finish. There’s very little traditional action except for a small-scale but impressive car chase, and most scenes have very few moving parts except for those relevant to the story, making the movie’s shots of ornate mansion rooms, decorations, and libraries splendid to behold, with the lone oddity being a chair that seems more like an interrogation tool than a plausible piece of home decoration. The “classical mystery” music, typical of the genre and devotedly faithful to it, leans more toward farces like Clue than something more ominous; there’s even a funny joke made about CSI.
Despite its title, Knives Out rarely bothers to shock the viewer with its visuals, making the few exceptions (including a quick but graphic act of violence) all the more notable since they’re used effectively and judiciously. The vulgar language carries less restraint, and while the goofy humor the movie’s going for works, it also makes one scene toward the film’s middle resemble the otherwise exceptional Premium Rush a bit too closely. Nevertheless, though the overall package isn’t as immensely silly or hilarious—or vulgar—as something like Game Night, Knives Out is a movie where Rian Johnson sticks to one central theme, instead of many, and explores it superbly, instead of losing direction halfway through. And it’s an immense improvement over some of his previous works for that.
Conclusion: A surprising but splendid recommendation.
With performances that are not only convincing but at times deeply moving, and with elegant production values that know their time and place, Rian Johnson’s latest strikes as a departure from some of his previous works but also places itself above them. One could argue that Knives Out pruned a few too many story branches, with a large central cast often being reduced to joke material despite the movie’s steady pacing and strong relation-building. The end result nonetheless maintains a steady focus even with some plot holes where certain poor or malicious decisions weren’t prevented or punished as heavily as they could have been. Amid its goofy characterizations, Knives Out serves as a reasonable and even remarkably heartfelt mystery with a satisfying and well explained conclusion, and it’s a strong recommendation even, and perhaps especially, to viewers who aren’t typically fans of the genre.