It’s rare for a movie like Knives Out to live up to the star power of its ensemble, but then again, Knives Out is a rare movie. The movie is very much in the same category of such works as Clue: The Movie, but rather than being derivative, Knives Out manages to stay unique, spinning a darkly comical tale about a dysfunctional family self destructing from their own greed.
The premise is simple enough. Popular mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead of an apaprent suicide the day after his 85th birthday. A private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is summoned by an anonymous client to look into the case, leading him to the family’s dirty laundry and a possible motive for murder.
There are a number of things that elevate the film, not the least of which is its cast. Knives Out has one of the best ensembles we’ve seen in recent years, with such superstars as Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Daniel Craig and others. Everyone has a strong screen presence. Jaeden Martell, who previously worked with Shannon on Midnight Special, spends most of the movie with his nose buried in his cell phone, but still manages to be uniquely unlikeable (by design) on the few occasions he says more than two words.
Every performance is a standout. Christopher Plummer delivers a career highlight as Thrombey. Thrombey is an intriguing man whom Plummer brings to life with a mixture of sternness and lovability. Even after the character is gone, we feel his presence and want to see justice delivered. Chris Evans also delivers a very against type performance as Ransom, Thrombey’s grandson. Evans plays the sleazy brat to perfection. It’s a testament to his skills as an actor that even though he looks identical to his character in the Avengers films, he nonetheless vanishes into the role.
But the film boasts a powerhouse performance from Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, Thrombey’s nurse. Armas is a relative newcomer, with her most noteworthy performance being as the hologram character in Blade Runner 2049. She continues her winning streak here as one of the few characters in the film to have some compassion in a greed filled house.
The film is largely told from Cabrera’s perspective, and even that aspect is accomplished wonderfully. The first 15 minutes focus on the other members of the ensemble, which focuses more on their dislike of the late Thrombey. As a result, we feel no sense of loss. When the movie transfers to Cabrera, we see the Thrombey she knew and cared for. From here, the movie sticks with Cabrera for the remainder of its run time, allowing us to follow her as she watches the Thrombey family implode.
The film is effectively about two deaths. The first is Thrombey and the second is his family. At the start of the film, we are treated to the illusion of happiness as Harlan’s relatives tell the detective everything they know while at the same time censoring their problems with the elderly author. This is shown through a series of flashbacks juxtaposed with their statements to the detective. Right away we know these tensions exist, and they only worsen as the movie continues. By the end, the Thrombeys are reduced to a pack of selfish animals clamoring for what’s left of Harlan’s estate.
Does the mystery work? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ The film opens with the discovery of Harlan’s corpse. From there, the film peels back the disguises of each member of Thrombey’s family, allowing us to see their potential motives underneath. True to form with the best murder mysteries, everyone in this rich ensemble is a suspect. The film also evokes the feeling of classic Victorian era mysteries with its superb set design. The Thrombey home is as much an essential part of the cast as anyone in the credits. Like most of the cast, it’s good at keeping secrets.
The movie makes superb use of suspense. Early on it becomes clear who knows the most about Harlan’s death. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, this person speaks to the detective while the camera pans down to their shoes, revealing a single drop of blood. During another scene, the detective goes on a tour of the grounds around the Thrombey home, repeatedly coming within a stone’s throw of several important clues. Several of these scenes are straight out of Hitchcock, right down to the film’s use of dark humor.
Make no mistakes. Knives Out is an incredibly funny movie. There aren’t many laugh out loud moments. The humor is instead like an itch we can’t quite scratch, which somehow makes it more noticeable. The film generates laughs in two ways. One is with the often quirky performances of its cast, who all bring their best to the screen. The next is with Rian Johnson’s screenplay, which is overflowing with subtly funny dialogue. Johnson’s script seldom piles the humor on suddenly, opting instead to deal it out in light doses that never let a moment pass without something to make is titter. Subtle humor is still humor, and Knives Out is a great example.
Rian Johnson has made a very special film here, one that should be counted amongst the best murder mysteries ever made. Knives Out has a lot to say about dysfunctional families, wealth, and the relationship those two things often share. It does so with potent, even tragic honesty, but still manages to keep it funny from first frame to last. That’s a rare talent.
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