Rian Johnson’s work is typically layered and complex, weaving various plot threads and character arcs into films that can barely contain their own dense narrative. His addition to the massively homogenized Star Wars franchise is the boldest, densest entry since The Empire Strikes Back, even accounting for the disastrous idiosyncrasies of The Phantom Menace. Knives Out is his latest, a murder mystery/comedy featuring a knock-out cast and a constantly shifting and unfolding narrative that rarely drags. It’s a modern whodunnit that’s unadulterated fun, especially with a large audience, but as usual, Johnson’s ambition may have exceeded his grasp, because for such a tangled web of lush characters and a 2+ hour runtime to explore them, Knives Out is still half-baked.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a wealthy mystery novelist who turns up dead the morning after his 85th birthday party. With the entire family having attended and each bearing a substantial motive for wanting Harlan dead, the list of suspects is endless. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a southern private detective, is hired under mysterious circumstances to investigate Harlan’s murder, and the initial stretch of the film introduces us to Harlan’s family as he and Detective Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) interview them on the events that led up to Harlan’s death. Most of his family is convinced his death is a suicide and reject the investigation entirely, but Blanc’s suspicions only grow deeper as he begins to unpack the mystery of that fateful night.
The rest of the cast Johnson assembles is impressive, to say the least: Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette. Even more notable is Johnson’s ability to write such dense, fully developed characters, even for the smaller roles like Frank Oz as the exasperated family lawyer, or M. Emmet Walsh as the old-fashioned security officer who refers to VHS as “modern technology” in a hilarious throwaway line. Toni Collette especially gets a lot of room to play, as the airheaded daughter-in-law whose capacity for reading ends at a twitter headline. The characterizations are so rich and the narrative is so layered, but ultimately the two detract from one another, rather than fusing to make a cohesive whole.
Take for instance the teenage grandson (Jaeden Martell) who is a loud and proud alt-right internet troll, unironically lobbing insults like “liberal snowflake.” The character should be more than primed for deconstruction, especially given the immense criticism Johnson faced from online teenagers in the wake of his Star Wars film. Unfortunately, the character exists solely to bridge an unnecessary, small gap in the plot, as well as serve as the butt of a few effective jokes. This is really a microcosm of my major issue with Knives Out: it’s an unfortunate underutilization of resources.
By packing in so many things, Johnson ends up with very little actual substance. Does the running joke that no one in the family seems to know the ethnicity of his caretaker Marta (Armas) factor into any major thematic throughline? Not really. There’s a scene where the family argues politics, specifically immigration, and Marta is forcibly introduced to give her opinion, but it leads to another slight punchline. I’m sure many would argue otherwise, but the attempt to imbue the film with thematic weight is admirable, though ultimately hollow.
Knives Out doesn’t need to be thematically poignant or have every character thoroughly explored, each with their own narrative or emotional throughline. If Johnson had modest ambitions, that’d be one thing, but he seems just as intent on providing social commentary as he does delivering a crowd-pleaser, and in that regard, I think he comes up short. Otherwise, Knives Out is a blast. Johnson sets up a brilliant dynamic between Detective Blanc and Marta, where her regurgitative response to dishonesty makes her an invaluable asset to his investigation. He also structures Knives Out perfectly, so that even when we’re given more information, it somehow escalates the tension. He’s a great storyteller, and in that sense, he’s perfectly suited to revive the classic whodunnit, a genre that desperately needs a modern touch, just like he did for film noir with Brick.
The narrative isn’t airtight and it fails to deliver any satisfying pay off to the political subtext, but overall Knives Out succeeds where it needs to. It’s a fun, intriguing, and often thrilling murder mystery with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and a hilarious central performance from Craig. If only Johnson’s own knife was a bit sharper, he might have succeeded in delivering a poignant and compelling portrait of modern American society as well as an exciting mystery, but one out of the two ain’t bad.
B Middleburg Review 2019 ana de armas brick chris evans christopher plummer daniel craig don johnson frank oz jaeden martell jamie lee curtis knives out lakeith stanfield m. emmet walsh michael shannon rian johnson star wars star wars: the last jedi the empire strikes back the phantom menace toni collette