What They Say:
A detective and a trooper travel to a lush estate to interview the quirky relatives of a patriarch who died during his 85th birthday celebration.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
I remember when I saw the first trailer for Looper that I realized I needed to find out about the direct, Rian Johnson. That was thankfully easy as he had two films prior to that with BRick and Brothers Bloom, both of which I enjoyed the hell out of. I’m also on the side of being a fan of The Last Jedi so it was no surprise that I was excited to see him go back to a smaller movie to work through things in a more grounded way, reconnect to his roots a bit, before deciding more fully his path forward. Knives Out had me from the start but as it delivered us a cast – Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer – and then the first trailer that provided the right kind of quirk and humor with the murder mystery concept, I was all in and it’s felt like a long wait to finally sit down and see it.
The premise is simple enough in that we’re introduced to Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), celebrating his 85th birthday with his family in his expansive old mansion. With a New England backdrop that was filmed pretty much in the heart of where I live, the settings play out wonderfully and felt fresh, especially with this house that’s almost a character itself. The film delves into the birthday tale by introducing us to the Thromby’s adult children, some of their kids, and the fact that his mother is actually still alive as well (K. Callan, who herself was married to an author). There’s a lot of traditional Northeast material here in general conversation, interactions, and even the politics. There’s one scene where they get into immigration and present-day politics – which may be a cringe moment for many as you don’t really expect it – but it’s pretty spot on for the people that the film is portraying. While Johnson got that right I think he missed the boat in going with such ciphers as the grandkids as stand-ins for twitter “SJWers” and “Alt-Right Troll Nazi” as they get distilled down to and done little with overall.
But they aren’t the main cast, they aren’t who we’re here to see. We’re here to see the fallout from Thrombey’s death and the reading of the will. Over the first two acts of the film we get to see both of these things in motion as we see the birthday evening play out as the questioning happens a week later (again) in order to put the pieces together. Doing that while also focusing on the will and the results from there fills in the backstory well and then pushes the film forward in a very fast way. And that largely comes through a pair of performances. First, the reason we get a second round of questioning over what turns out to be a suicide is that Danie Crag’s Benoit Blanc arrives as a hired detective to ask questions. He’s been paid well to figure out if it really was a suicide. Crag is just having a blast here with a role that doesn’t require extensive physicality but works a particular presence and another wonderfully fun southern accent that just shakes you out of things in the right way. He’s your classic gentleman-detective and Craig embraces it well.
The other primary is Thrombey’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (de Armas), a young-ish nurse that was brought on part-time to help out but ended up being brought on full time as a friend for Thrombey. With Thrombey churning out two novels a year, the family was involved in the cottage industry in different ways and different connections with it but busy lives keep them away from being there more regularly. Marta provided that, though she would only be there during the days and some evenings before returning to her home with her sister and mother. She’s grounded, a bit skittish, and a solid nurse and companion for someone like Thrombey. So when we see the truth of what happened around the end of the first act with all the introductions set and the motives laid out, she and Blanc provide for a great pair to work the case as he brings her on as his Watson. Of course, aligning himself as a Sherlock means that he’s noticed clues from day one that allow him to manipulate things but that’s part of the fun. Did he really see that? Did he miss it and pick up a different clue? The two definitely have a good bit of tension between them as they investigate what’s going on and as the family gets tenser and then the will reading changes everything.
While I’m often deep within any number of Scandinoir thrillers and mystery-murder series, films like these are few and far between when made in Hollywood. Knives Out is trying to walk the balance of a couple of different ideas and I do think it does it well but it’s going to be people’s expectations that will be the most problematic, and a lot of that is because of the various trailer cuts. The film does have some camp to it and some of that comes through personality. But it also tries to play it as a straight murder mystery, one where we know the truth (or a version of the truth) and are working backward to get to it from different points before moving forward again. There are a few feints and red herrings along the way and it all works well. But some folks may be expecting it to be more like Clue than what it is. I don’t think the trailers sold it as a very serious film but it leans into that side well enough. Lakeith Stanfield as the main detective overseeing the case is the best way to kind of view it. He’s doing his job seriously but he has to deal with a bunch of quirky people and sometimes he lets his guard down and just laughs or chuckles at the absurdity of the moment.
Knives Out delivered something that I wanted and that was a fun film. I understand the way that some will think it needed to lean more to one side or the other but there’s something fun about this where it goes middle of the road but works its quirks through grounded characters and their realistic absurdities. Johnson keeps this moving very well and likely could have had it run longer and be just as entertaining as you dig into the ways it could have unfolded. I like the twist, I like when we get the answers early and enjoy the ride. And I absolutely love the cast that are just having fun here with something that’s sharp, doesn’t try to outthink everyone in the room, and lets the performances happen. Nothing felt forced or awkward, just a lot of fun and a really enjoyable experience.