Knives Out: A Murder Mystery Stuffed Full of Mayhem and Mirth
The murder mystery novel, effectively invented by Agatha Christie in the early twentieth century, has the luxury and flexibility of time. Readers consume the twists and turns in chunks, spread out over days and weeks, free to stop, start, flip back, cross-reference, or simply take a break to ponder the myriad clues embedded in the story. In short, novels can be subtle enough to avoid giving away the ending without losing readers’ attention. The murder mystery film, on the other hand, has a mere two hours to dole out clues and somehow vomit up a barrage of exposition without arriving at an all-too-contrived twist ending. Rian Johnson’s latest genre homage-cum-garnish Knives Out effectively delivers the perfect dose of clattering characters, break-neck plotting, and elusive politics – an almost unbearably enjoyable ride that distracts just long enough to end up somewhere surprising. Keenly aware of the customs of the genre, Johnson creates the perfect set-up: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the octogenarian patriarch of a clan full of misfits, brings his family together only to die later that night. Investigators descend on the family mansion, including the infamous Detective Benoit Blanc (a miraculously caricature-avoiding Daniel Craig). Marta (Ana de Armas), the head-on-straight nurse and caretaker to Harlan, and the last to see him alive, serves as a guide through the layers of mystery and intergenerational bullshit. Knives Out doesn’t offer a moment to think. Johnson stuffs every minute full of information – both helpful clues and wayward red herrings. Every scene crackles with tension and humor, the two co-mingling in a cocktail of passive aggression that any red-blooded household should recognize over Thanksgiving. The Thrombeys ping-pong off each other, the perfect successful-turned-dysfunctional American family for 2019. Johnson lets his audience focus for just long enough to gain their balance before repeatedly pulling the rug out from under their feet. More than just dynamic plotting, Johnson uses a very late 90s, early 2000s tool in his effort to distract: capital M, capital S, Movie Stars. In one of his first post-MCU roles, Chris Evans revels in a very anti-Captain America role as Ransom, the black sheep of the family, who at one point tells his entire extended lineage to “eat shit,” one by one by one. Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon burst with deviant delight as uber-competitive siblings, eager and entitled to their father’s legacy. Craig continues a run of non-Bond, quirky, Appalachian-accented roles, stealing most every scene with half-right hunches and cock-eyed wisdom. But in this stacked cast, it’s the relative newcomer Ana de Armas who steals the show. In what could have been a typical “audience stand-in” role, de Armas elevates the entire movie with a beguiling and shifting performance. Somehow completely open while totally deceitful; vulnerable but guarded; soft yet ferocious. She conveys and upends relationship dynamics with the delivery of a single line here, the slight shift of a smile there. It is a performance that captivates attention without even asking for it. And suddenly the end arrives – and like any good murder mystery, it is inevitable without being predictable. But like any Rian Johnson movie, Knives Out is more than its genre predecessors. Just as it distracted for long enough to ensure a number of genuinely thrilling twists in turns, so too does the movie act as something of a Trojan horse for powerful and timely statements about class and race in America. The subtlety of Johnson’s scathing indictment of the wealthy, white family at the center of Knives Out makes it all the more powerful – capped out with one of the most arresting, satisfying final shots of the year. And that’s what will hopefully lead to success for Knives Out – it shapeshifts to its audience’s expectations and desires. For those wanting a family-friendly, Thanksgiving Friday romp through murder, mayhem, and amusement, Knives Out need be nothing more. For those seeking a balm from tense family reunions and an outlet after confrontation with conservative relatives, Knives Out is a potent remedy. And for anyone seeking assured filmmaking with a refreshingly original script – well, it’s got that too. Knives Out may not be a cinematic milestone, but it’s impossible not to love.