AT THE MOVIES
“Knives Out” Brings a Classic Genre Back to Life
BY NOAH GITTELL
In the most anarchic corners of my mind, I delight in the thought of families having gone to see “Knives Out” on Thanksgiving expecting relief from a day of family squabbles. It’s a classical whodunit that serves up the simple pleasures of the genre: an all-star cast, an ingenious plot full of twists and turns, and an ostentatious location to inspire envy. The film by writer-director Rian Johnson delivers on all it promises, but then it delivers something else. “Knives Out” suckers you in with its pure entertainment value and then delivers a knock-out political punch more divisive than any Thanksgiving Day argument.
The film centers around the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling author of mystery novels who is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party at his stately Massachusetts home. The police are on the case, but they defer to the mysterious and brilliant private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who was hired by an unknown employer to determine whether Thrombey’s death was really a suicide, as the details suggest, or if something more nefarious is afoot. Blanc, with his thick Southern drawl, is out of place among the New England bluebloods, but he uses it to his advantage. Keeping the Thrombey clan on their toes, he quickly susses out that each of Harlan’s grown children had a motive, although none seem particularly bright enough to pull it off.
Identifying the murderer is the driver of the plot, but our attention is held by the film’s riotous contempt for most of its characters. Harlan’s family members are a thoroughly unsympathetic bunch. There’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson), snobbish real estate agents; daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a new age bimbo with a fledgling, Goop-like wellness company; son Walt (Michael Shannon), who has bitterly run his father’s publishing house for decades; and grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), the family’s mysterious black sheep who keeps his distance, except when he shows up to insult family members to their faces. It’s a delightful subversion for Evans, who has spent most of the last decade and a half playing the squarest guy in the universe, and here gets to hurl obscenities at a room filled with prestigious actors.
Only the meek nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who also served as Harlan’s confidante, seems worthy of our sympathy. She gets pulled into the fiendish plot against her will, but the film has a keen eye for the political subtext of her place in the family. As an immigrant worker, she is consistently overlooked, and denied access to the funeral despite being closer to Harlan than anyone else. There is also running joke about her heritage, which no one bothers to remember. At various times, the smug family members cite her home country as Ecuador, Paraguay, and Brazil, each certain that they are the most woke.
The social commentary may be polarizing with audiences, but the film’s clever plotting will satisfy all comers. Nothing is quite as it seems in “Knives Out”, which somehow both fulfills our expectations and rebels against the conventions of the genre. Half an hour in, we find out how Harlan died. Forty minutes later, the murderer confesses to the police. But Johnson’s clever script seamlessly shifts the stakes so that each new piece of information resolves some questions and asks new ones. It’s delightfully entertaining, keeping you on the edge of your seat without instilling any unpleasant tension.
At the center of it all are two brilliant performances by Craig and Armas, each of whom must play the role of detective in their own way. Blanc is the tougher role: Craig has little characterization to work with — besides the Foghorn Leghorn accent, we never know a thing about Blanc’s life or personality outside the world of the film — but he creates a captivating character while holding the film’s questions and answers in his steady gaze. Still, Armas is the bigger revelation. As Marta becomes the key to the film’s mystery, she finds empowerment through humility, turning a vulnerable character into a totem of strength and courage. It’s a star-making performance.
Ultimately, whether or not you like “Knives Out”, you should celebrate its existence. It’s the rare example of a studio film based on an original script — not based on a comic book, young adult book, or children’s toy — with a hefty budget behind it and a prime release date. It even has a few interesting thoughts rolling around in its head. As serious-minded cinephiles worry about the future of cinema, “Knives Out” takes a dagger to our fears and shows that old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment isn’t dead after all.
My Rating: See it in the Theater