Knives Out review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a love letter to murder mysteries. The director clearly has a passion for the genre, taking the medium and toying with all its quirks and spinning a wild tale of the whodunnit. What makes a great mystery work? After many a BBC series and countless Agatha Christie adaptations, I’ve come to the conclusion what counts most is the colorful characters and genuine spirit of surprise. On this level, Knives Out succeeds greatly.
Johnson wastes no time plunging us right into the juicy bits of this mystery. The very first scene showcases the aged Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dead. His death has initially ruled a suicide. But Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), armed with a Southern drawl, suspects foul play. The murder occurred just before the end of Harlan’s birthday with all his friends and relatives gathered in the house. Many have much to gain from his passing. The suspects include the cocky Hugh "Ransom" Drysdale (Chris Evans), the bitter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), the conservative Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), the liberal Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), the desperate Walter "Walt" Thrombey (Michael Shannon), and the caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). Who could be behind such a scheme?
The film goes about weaving its twisty murder plot via flashbacks, tight editing, and biting dialogue. This is a very slick murder mystery that doesn’t waste our time by slowly establishing our characters before the murder occurs. We arrive at the case the same way Detective Benoit does, piecing it together from the interviews with the family. The entire first-act plays out as a darkly comedic Rashomon of spinning lies about their recollection of events and their feud with Harlan. Walt works alongside Harlan for his publishing business but can’t do much else and doesn’t know what he’ll do if he doesn’t have that business. Joni has spending problems and with a kid in an expensive school, she desperately needs some money for the long haul. Essentially, everyone is facing hard times and are counting on Harlan’s will to solve their problems. To them, it doesn’t matter who murdered Harlan so long as they get paid and maintain their lifestyles.
I’ll try to refrain from explaining too much more of the plot if only to maintain the brilliance in the twisty story that takes several turns. What I can say is that this ensemble cast is in top form. I absolutely adored Crain trying to put on a bayou accent in his dissection of the crime, always approaching each conversation with a dry charm that just melts my heart. Michael Shannon is such a great actor at seeming both intimidating and mad, trying to not show that crazy side behind those big eyes as he stammers towards stability. Ana de Armas gives off a chipper vibe despite being the quietest voice in the room with a quirk that is equal parts cute and gross. Chris Evans, having spent a lot of time as the stoic Captain America, really cuts loose in a role where he delights in watching his family rip each other to shreds. And the political back and forth between Collette and Johnson is a brilliantly savaging of a family bickering amongst itself.
Knives Out is a sinisterly sharp mystery. It never backs off from going the extra length of writing. When the characters get into politics, they go in hard (trigger warning for the Trump-loving folks). When staging the flashbacks, the editing is fast-paced enough to never bore and keep us engaged. It’s such a wild ride that by the time one discovers the true murderer of this plot, there’s far too much fun that a second viewing is all but guaranteed.