Rian Johnson stuns with the best of the festival
Sure, Knives Out looked like a fun romp with an amazing cast coming from Rian Johnson, a writer-director with absolutely nothing to prove. Yet somehow I just wasn’t expecting this closing night film to become my very favorite of Fantastic Fest.
Knives Out is that rare bird of a studio film that is not in any way based on a pre-existing intellectual property and which was produced for what would likely be considered in the “mid-budget” range. Relying on Rian Johnson’s name in his first post-Star Wars outing, and banking on an absolutely stacked cast full of both A-list and up-and-coming talent, Knives Out has plenty going for it. Add to that the fact that the film is very much an old-school murder mystery that, while remaining an original property, wears its admiration for Agatha Christie mystery novels on its sleeve, and you’ve got a film that will almost certainly appeal to a broad demographic of moviegoers as well. These are all observations one can make of the film from a distance or based solely on the trailer. And these were all elements I counted as appealing when assessing my own excitement about the film.
The beauty of Knives Out, however, is in the script and the execution of said script. Snappy and witty from moment one, Johnson proves that he’s one of Hollywood’s greatest modern assets by penning an absolutely stunning screenplay. Knives Out balances quite a wide array of characters seemingly effortlessly. Johnson himself said this plot featured more characters than he was used to writing for in the Fantastic Fest Q&A. But even with such an expansive cast, everyone feels vital to the complicated murder mystery plot. And about that plot. Sure, it takes place in a grand old mansion and anyone can be a suspect. It’s familiar and comfortably falls into the murder mystery genre. But this thing twists and turns at a rapid pace and is virtually guaranteed to surprise even the most avid mystery solver.
Just as important, Johnson effortlessly builds in societal commentary that burns with relevance even as it celebrates old school tropes. Amidst this very broad array of talent, the cast is still very white and loaded to the brim with privileged and wealthy characters, mostly members of the Thrombey clan, the patriarch of which (Christopher Plummer having a blast as Harlan Thrombey) has been discovered dead of a suspected suicide. Yet the central character of the whole narrative quickly proves to be Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049), Harlan’s personal nurse and, by all accounts, a “part of the family”. It will be Marta and private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig continuing the hot streak of playing southern characters he began with Logan Lucky) who take center stage and star in this ensemble.
Blanc has been brought in to investigate Harlan’s death, but even he is unsure of who has hired him. It was an anonymous payment that brought him to the Thrombey estate. The brilliant script quickly introduces us to a huge array of characters and catches us up on the details of Harlan’s death and final days through a series of police interrogations in which we meet Detectives Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Wagner (Noah Segan), as well as Blanc. It’s here where the nuances of each character begin to shine through, and the script also quickly begins jumping around in time with breathtaking ease. Harlan had hosted an 85th birthday party and been found dead the next morning. The interviews begin the following week. And we’ll bounce around in time routinely as Knives Out’s delightfully twisty and complex narrative play out.
De Armas turns in a star-making lead performance and its through her plotline that Johnson builds in some of his most incisive commentary. Harlan Thrombey dearly loved Marta and confided in her as a true friend. With his blood family, however, relations were not so good. Knives Out comments on old money versus new money, white privilege, and even occasionally veers into outright political commentary as some Thrombeys hold very right wing views, others left wing views, but all privileged beyond belief and varying degrees of insufferable as a result. The subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which Marta is made to feel “other” or “less than” are many, but de Armas’ performance is filled with dignity and Marta is written with a fair amount of agency and pluck.
The entire cast turns in brilliant work as befitting a script that allows each to shine. It’s too much for one review to lay out each actor and character and communicate how they’re related, what makes them tick, and what motives they may have had for ending Harlan Thrombey’s life, but let’s just say that no one is above suspicion and Johnson is going to keep you guessing until the very end. He uses his post-Star Wars clout to assemble an absolute dream cast, lets them all loose to have fun with their characters, and makes every last dollar spent show up on that screen. It’s almost too hard to even single out a few actors as shining especially brightly, but Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, and Don Johnson are pretty unforgettable. And the various ways in which [Rian] Johnson keeps you guessing feel fresh and new even in a dusty genre that’s been selling airport paperbacks since before there were airports.
Knives Out truly has it all. Wildly entertaining from start to finish, with a mystery that keeps you guessing, a cast for the ages, and a wickedly smart sense of humor that skewers the aloof and privileged, while ultimately also having a heart of gold that celebrates goodness and human decency — this isn’t simply fantastic entertainment, it’s one of the very best films 2019 has to offer. Now we must all support this film in hopes that Johnson will pen many more adventures of Benoit Blanc in the future.
And I’m Out.