Cutting satire and a game cast elevate the typical whodunit structure into something refreshingly modern.
A strange outlier in the current barrage of awards season films and the latest from Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, Knives Out feels like a studio blockbuster gone prestige. From the stacked ensemble cast to the gleefully modern take on a well-worn concept, everything about the film screams 2019. And yet it contains a level of style and polish that elevates the potentially simple framework into something uniquely positioned as the cure for late-year film fatigue. Despite the status quo still being very much in place, finally a challenger emerges to shake a relatively content general audience into actually thinking about what a film is saying entirely through how it decides to say it. After all, everyone loves a good mystery, especially if the reveal at the end is as unpredictably sharp as the entirety of Knives Out.
Unfortunately, most of Knives Out is off-limits when discussing it in a non-spoiler context due to the nature of it being a whodunit. But the writing is still worth talking about, even when avoiding specifics. As politically charged as it is deeply amusing, the script never misses an opportunity to highlight the comedy of errors that is the current state of the country. Even the general concept—the rich white Thrombey family panicking over the sudden death of their patriarch—is skewered to increasingly self-aware degrees. And yet the jokes contained within nearly every line of dialogue manage to avoid distracting from the story and in most cases actually enhance the more serious moments, either by providing a moment of levity or by highlighting just how ridiculous the whole situation is. Not every joke ends up working, and some scenes go on a little too long with too little happening, but the script is almost universally solid. It stays as tight as it needs to while feeling just loose enough to keep an unpredictability factor, empowering the talented cast to bring the necessary energy to each scene.
That cast is enough to raise interest on its own, as Knives Out contains enough starpower to draw anyone in. From older actors like Christopher Plummer and Jamie Lee Curtis to more recent breakout stars like Chris Evans and Lakeith Stanfield, every generation is given a seat at the table here. And while each performance is impressive on their own—Chris Evans especially proves his versatility in a post-Avengers world—the best demonstration of this wide-reaching representation comes from the two biggest presences in the film, private detective Benoit Blanc played by Daniel Craig and family associate Marta Cabrera portrayed in a star-making turn by Ana de Armas. Craig is fantastically overly dramatic, clearly committing to his character while still finding a way to have fun. This especially comes out during his interactions with Armas, whose naive normality gives her instant relatability and sympathy. There is an unexpected chemistry between them, bolstered by them spending so much time together and sharing some key similarities that really set them apart from the insanity of the main family.
If the first weapon of choice for Knives Out is clever writing and the second is a game cast, the way Johnson utilizes the camera is easily the third. Despite the polarizing reaction to The Last Jedi, most audiences could at least agree that it contained some truly impressive camera work, and that same attention to detail and eye for visual appeal is present here. This is an incredibly colorful film from the costumes to the decor of the Thrombey family home, and Johnson strategically captures all of it in some strikingly beautiful shots without it coming off as self-impressed. And just like every other aspect, it all works towards creating the perfect environment for the actors to shine, using all the tricks in the book to highlight each important moment. From shadows placed to look like a mask to a circle of knives surrounding someone being interrogated, the cinematography plays an equal role as anything else in telling the story effectively and subtly, giving each new twist and turn their own unique piece of visual symbolism.
Even though Knives Out does falter in a few places, most notably with a third act that feels uncharacteristically restrained, it would be hard to find another film this year that has as much fun with itself as everyone involved clearly had making it. Throughout is a feeling that Johnson has captured lightning in a bottle, bringing a traditionally classical genre into the 21st century with a grand flourish. While it can be tough to really dissect without giving things away, what makes it work is comparatively incredibly easy to spot. This is as confident a drama as it is a hilarious comedy, a brilliant mystery viewed through the lens of people too self-obsessed to fully grasp the bigger picture. Whether it gets any awards attention remains to be seen, but given how smartly it critiques the establishment it would be fitting if it did and ironic if it did not.