A good mystery is hard to nail. Much like a magic trick, you have to start by showing your cards and letting your audience choose their favorite. It’s the preemptive stage. The characters are drawn up before you: the father and his children, the eldest daughter and her distant husband, the eldest son and his ignored aspirations, the daughter-in-law putting her daughter through school, the grandkids. Each one different, each one with a unique side of the story. Once they are shown, you choose one. First impressions are often the most accurate, after all.
Knives Out gives you a stunning deck of cards to chose from. Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, True Lies) and Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Django Unchained) as the perpetually feuding Linda and Richard Drysdale. Captain Amer-, I mean Chris Evans (America’s Ass) as the ungrateful grandson. Michael Shannon (Shape of Water, Man of Steel) and Riki Lindhome (Last House on the Left) as the aspirational son and his wife, Walt and Donna Thrombey. Toni Collette as the dead son’s widow Joni Thrombey. And this is only the Thrombey family.
Your tour guides for this journey are the rapidly rising star Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You, Get Out), Noah Segan (Looper, Brick) and the indomitable Daniel Craig (Spectre, Logan Lucky). They serve as a kind of Chorus throughout Knives Out, setting the scene. Craig’s Benoit Blanc drawls his way through the key moments of the case, charming the crowd with a diction that drips like molasses.
Then the magician mixes a little of the extraordinary with the mundane. A murder! A family inheritance! Lies! Intrigue! See, the best part of a good murder mystery is tricking the viewer into convincing themselves that they know the trick. It is misdirection and panache. Look at the brooding son so that you may miss the roiling daughter. But it is the final part of the trick that proves the most rewarding.
The Thrombey family is in mourning. Their patriarch, Harlan Thrombey, played by the timeless Christopher Plummer (Beginners, A Beautiful Mind), has been murdered. Through colorful and creative exposition, the events of the fateful night are played back for us. Carefully, Knives Out gives each character a unique but substantial motivation. Take a card, any card.
Before Rian Johnson was a household name, before he helmed The Last Jedi, he was a bit more obscure. And I have just realized that I have gotten very good at writing really obvious statements. See…here’s the thing. Rian Johnson has never really made movies on the scale of The Last Jedi. He generally makes smaller, intimate, intellectual dramas. Knives Out feels like a return to Johnson’s comfort zone. The director of Brick and Looper is incredibly skilled at establishing setting, character, and intrigue.
Knives Out spends little time familiarizing you with the family and their quarrels with exposition, enjoyable as it may be. Instead it takes you to the Thrombey home and allows the actors to take the job of filling you in on their backstory. Within moments, most of the family is implicated in the slaying of Harlan. Some seem to have more motivation, some seem to have less.
You see, after all the cards have been chosen, and after the magician flashes their wand, the cards disappear. Perhaps they vanish in a poof of smoke or beneath a hat, still, they have vanished. In the final moments, your mind races to figure it out before it is revealed, like a friend searching Google for a name you can’t quite get off the tip of your tongue. If it is revealed before you remember, the game is lost. So you search and search, and in your heated ferreting you begin to distract yourself even further. Then, with a final flash and fanfare the magician produces a card and asks the quintessential question, “Is this…[reveals card] your card?”
Rian Johnson’s ace up his sleeve is Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049). The late Harlan Thrombey’s in-house nurse Marta is the outsider. The one person that doesn’t really belong with the group. Marta makes you second guess everything you made your mind up about already.
Knives Out is adept at both drawing you in and distracting you with diversion. See, that’s the key to a good magic (mystery) trick: if you can pull it off well enough, you can reuse the principles over and over again. Knives Out toys with you in each act. Here is a dysfunctional family with dozens of reasons to off their father. Enter the in-house nurse, who had all the opportunity. But wait! What about this person?
There are a few threads that are loosened that seem to rest undisturbed for the rest of the film, but outside of that complaint, there isn’t much about Knives Out that I found issue with. The plot is very well crafted, causing you to frequently question your own predictions. Every shot is clever, smart, and engrossing.
All in all, Knives Out is a thrilling and complex murder mystery that hearkens to the pillars of the genre. Think Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy L. Sayers. The cinematography is immediately compelling, the actors seem to have all lived in their parts for years ahead of filming, and Rian Johnson feels at home. A great place to be as a director and as a viewer. | Caleb Sawyer