Rian Johnson’s script and gathered ensemble sparkles
The holidays usually are a time when families come together. But celebrations and laughter can often give way to conflicts arising from opportunities to share long simmering resentments. So when better to drop a film depicting a family at each other’s throats than Thanksgiving! Rian Johnson’s first film after the incredible Star Wars: The Last Jedi riffs off the classic “whodunnits” in the vein of Agatha Christie, adds in some modern fresh twists, and adds a touch of stardust with a sparkling and very game cast.
The core conceit is a familiar one. Wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (a rascally Christopher Plummer) has been found murdered in his home on the eve of his 85th birthday. What first looked like suicide has been deemed foul play, and an anonymous person has tipped off the police and recruited famed private investigator Benoit Blanc (a delightful turn from Daniel Craig, think Columbo channeling the dulcet tones of Foghorn Leghorn) to solve the case. They arrive to find a house right out of Clue, complete with a motley bunch of relatives, all with a particular axe to grind (knife to stab?) against the patriarch of the family. Truths come to light, motives start to be established, and twists emerge as Blanc, aided by Thrombey’s former nurse Marta (Ana De Armas in a standout role), looks to piece together what happened that fateful night.
Rian Johnson’s script feels like a loving homage to the murder-mystery genre, albeit with its own distinct spin, combined with his trademark smarts and humor. It’s a fast paced romp, brimming with snappy lines, running jokes, character quirks, visual gags, and just the right smattering of nods to pop culture. Some are in service to the mystery, and some are just for pure entertainment value. Nathan Johnson’s wonderfully playful score helps the film barrel along, as you’re barely given the chance to try and predict the twists and turns ahead. The mystery itself delivers the twists and turns you’d hope for, with Johnson playing with flashbacks, different memories, and perspectives depending on who is retelling the story. Events and the family vying for their piece of the inheritance pie (and to protect themselves) reveal instances of backstabbing, besmirching, and blackmail. An extra layer is added thanks to some underlying social commentary revolving around financial inequality, a topic that resonates strongly in our current political climate, and the film deftly skewers the entitlement of the Thrombeys and others of their ilk.
Speaking of wealth, there is an embarrassment of riches in his ensemble, bringing to life this colorful and often polarizing bunch of characters. Son Walt (the always stellar Michael Shannon) heads up the family publishing business and craves opening up his father’s publishing rights to film adaptations despite his father’s refusal. His sister Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) has her own business, albeit one launched with money from, and seemingly still reliant upon, her father. She also has a sleazy husband, Richard (Don Johnson), who Harlan had found was engaging in an affair. Together the pair have a far-right/social media hooked son named Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Their sister-in-law Joni (Toni Collette killing it as usual) has lost her husband, but is currently scamming Harlan out of money to support her health lifestyle brand Flam (think a riff on Gwyneth’s Goop), as well as her daughter Megan (Katherine Langford). Finally we have Linda and Richard’s son Ransom as a shit-stirrer/black sheep of the family. It’s a delicious role for Chris Evans, who gets to let rip in a role that is less America’s ass, and more America’s asshole. Each actor delivers just the just the right amount of overboard eccentricities that come with wealth and privilege, naturally woven into the script, and performances to entertain and enlighten the audience about the lives and behavior of the family. You get just enough of these (often terrible) people to want more, even after the conclusion. A Benoit Blanc murder-solving franchise, s’il vous plaît.
Rian Johnson has delivered one of the most refreshing films of the year. It’s a throwback to an old school murder mystery, but given a freshness thanks to a sharp script, a sparkling ensemble, and modern commentary eviscerating inequity and privileged amongst the entitled. Dense with detail and humor, Knives Out is self-aware, smart, and supremely satisfying, but above all it’s relentlessly entertaining.
Knives Out hits theaters on November 26th, 2019.