Rian Johnson brought teen angst and a wry wit to the neo-noir with Brick. He imbued a crafty con-man tale with romantic whimsy in The Brothers Bloom. He turned a science-fiction premise into a Western about toxic masculinity with Looper. Then he charted a bold new course in a classic franchise with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. So when this acclaimed writer/director reveals he’s going to do a whodunit, you might well expect it’ll be more than a simple case of catching a killer. With Knives Out, Johnson delivers not only a rousing tribute to the mysteries of Agatha Christie but also one the most terrifically entertaining films of the year.
Knives Out is an original, written and directed by Johnson. But you can see the Christie influences from the very start. The film focuses on the wealthy Thrombey family in a moment of great upheaval. Following a birthday party for their patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer), the old man—and heralded mystery novelist—is found dead in his study in an apparent suicide. But respected inspector Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has reason to suspect foul play, so every member of this curious clan is a suspect. Taking a cue from Christie, Johnson traps his suspects together, where sparks will fly and secrets will spill. Taking another cue from the slew of Christie adaptations, Johnson fills its sizeable cast with exciting stars. And this outstanding ensemble alone should clue you into the wild fun to be had here.
Jamie Lee Curtis in sharp glasses, a violently pink pantsuit, and a crown of silver curls strides onto the scene as the no-nonsense eldest child of Harlan. Michael Shannon with a quick sneer and a trembling cane plays her on-edge younger brother. Toni Collette swans in with a free-spirited energy and big GOOP vibes, chirping to Blanc, “I read a tweet from the New Yorker about you!” And Chris Evans, in his first role since hanging up Cap’s shield, bursts in like a tornado, swaggering, scarf-swinging, and shit-talking as the selfish, reckless black sheep of this posh clan. With a Southern accent as thick as molasses, Craig plays detective alongside a skeptical lieutenant (LaKeith Stanfield in the straight-man role) and Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who’s tasked with being his “Watson” as she has a deep knowledge of the family’s secrets and a physical inability to lie. With all this laid out, it’s off the races: Was murder-mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey murdered? If so, by who?
Through flashbacks and interrogations, Johnson sets up plenty of possibilities, motives, and seemingly throwaway comments that will later prove to be crucial clues. But there’s much more to this mystery than meets the eye. Just when you might think you have things figured out, you realize the movie’s been toying with you. What a delightful realization that is! This central mystery is masterfully constructed, and frankly, I’d expect nothing less from the mastermind behind Brick and The Brothers Bloom, two mystery movies that are only enriched once the secrets are all unveiled. Like those films, Johnson’s impeccable taste in casting makes a stellar script into a phenomenally thrilling film.
This exceptional ensemble is absolutely on fire. The Thrombey clan is one boiling with resentment, entitlement, fear, and greed. With Harlan gone, all this threatens to boil over. Warning glances will be thrown like daggers. Insults will be tossed like hand grenades. Shouting matches will rise into violent crescendos of cacophonic cursing, like Evans gleefully shouting, “EAT SHIT!” over and over to his frothing family members. It’s deliciously devilish fun to watch the rich behaving badly toward each other, especially with a cast that turns every bitter barb into a punchline. Curtis’ eye-rolls earn cackles. Shannon’s blustering gets guffaws. Evans’ 180 from Captain America to his polar opposite, a selfish prick with a foul mouth and a giddy love of riling his loved ones, won howls from the audience. Every castmember crackles, from Craig’s country-fried detective to de Armas’s wide-eyed witness, to Frank Oz in a bit part as a beleaguered attorney. But in a film full of scintillating scene-stealers, Collette is the uncontested queen, giving a spoof of “influencer” culture in a performance at once breezy and biting, speaking to the true edge of Knives Out.
Without giving up its mysteries, Johnson isn’t just offering up a tale of murder for fun. Amid the car chases, shady shenanigans, and family feuds, there lies a ferocious political message. Hints about it pop up early, in the careless comments by the Thrombey family about Marta’s origins or some cringe-inducing quoting of Hamilton. Later, things get explicit when the family has a fierce political debate, and though Trump is never name-dropped, his border wall talking points are, along with jabs like “social justice warrior” and “alt-right Nazi troll.” Johnson fosters a class-based schadenfreude, as the audience is encouraged to revel as the wealthy Thrombeys mercilessly tear each other apart. Yet, there’s a thread of sweetness in this tale of murder, greed, and an American Dream that has festered into American entitlement. But to say any more might mar the mystery.
Instead, I’ll conclude with this: Rian Johnson has made the best whodunit of the decade. Knives Out is wickedly clever, perfectly twisted, wildly fun, and fearless.
Knives Out made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Header Image Source: TIFF