Quick Takes: Knives Out

A wickedly good twist to the mystery genre.

On his 85th birthday, wealthy mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) gathers his family to his house to celebrate. The next day, he’s found dead in his study. It’s up to “gentleman detective” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to find out whodunnit. Was it his controlling eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis)? His reckless playboy grandson Ransom (Chris Evans)? And what about his caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas)? Nearly everybody has a motive, and absolutely everybody is a suspect in the tangled web of lies and intrigue that is Knives Out.

Writer/director Rian Johnson is a master at building unique microcosmic settings that operate on a particular form of logic. His film Brick is a hard-boiled neo-noir recontextualized into a high school setting. The Brothers Bloom melded steam trains, telegrams, and karaoke bars seamlessly. Even The Last Jedi was his way of deconstructing and re-framing the Star Wars universe into something singular and new. Knives Out is no different in that respect: it’s a modern take on the Agatha Christie murder mystery that feels both timeless and very much of the day all at once.

Johnson is in top form here, and his command of plot and detail is extraordinary. Like the best mysteries, the clues to the solution are all hidden in the text of the narrative, but it isn’t until Blanc’s big reveal during the film’s climax that everything comes together. Once it does, however, it all seems so relatively obvious that it almost requires an immediate re-watch to catch everything. Even if you think you’ve figured out who did the deed early on, there’s a good chance you won’t find all the twists and turns (or whys and whats) that Johnson lays out. This film is airtight and wickedly efficient, wasting absolutely nothing. There isn’t a single scene that doesn’t inform the story.

It’s sometimes difficult in ensemble pieces like this for characters to get a chance to shine, but Johnson writes each one of them so well and the cast is so uniformly on their A-game that even the characters with the smallest screen time make a lasting impact. Chris Evans in particular stands out, effortlessly playing up Ransom’s entitlement and arrogance, as does Toni Colette as Harlan’s daughter-in-law, a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle guru who’s every line drips with self-satisfied condescension. As the masks of gentility everyone wears start to drop over the course of the film, each member of the cast gets a moment to shine.

But it’s Ana de Armas who’s the heart and center of this narrative as both the main protagonist and just about the only person involved in the family who isn’t at least partially composed of garbage. Her performance is open and vulnerable but not overly emotional, and even over the film’s compressed time span she goes through a clear evolution. She serves as a fantastic way to view the true faces of the Thrombey family, who outwardly call her a “member of the family” but secretly resent her close relationship with Harlan. (In a running gag, every character thinks her family immigrated form a different country.) de Armas plays excellently off of Daniel Craig’s Blanc, a southern-fried Hercule Poirot with piercing blue eyes and charm to spare. Blanc takes Marta on as his “Watson” to investigate the circumstances of Harlan’s death, and their rapport is so immediate and genuine that the film sometimes feels like a pilot episode of a new series that follows the two as they roam the East Coast solving crimes.

Simply put, Knives Out is one of the best films of Rian Johnson’s career and one of the best mysteries in a very long time. Expertly plotted, perfectly acted, and hypnotically suspenseful, it’s a much welcome twist to the genre.

FBOTU Score: 9 out of 10 / A

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