The most obnoxious thing I can say about Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is that I prefer its mix of genre tropes and social commentary to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Frankly, the mix of Clue with an acerbic and biting look at race, class, and privilege in America is more entertaining to me than taking The Stepford Wives to another level, but why should we have to choose?
Knives Out is the story of a wealthy family that’s as dysfunctional and combative as a cable news panel. The patriarch, Harlan Thombey (Christopher Plummer), has made a career out of writing crime novels. His daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is strong-willed and socially conscious, and has a fractious relationship with her husband Richard (Don Johnson). Another son, Walter (Michael Shannon), runs the family’s publishing empire and cowers in the shadow of his powerful father. Ransom (Chris Evans) is aloof and disengaged. Grandkids Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) are diametrically opposed politically, with one more woke and the other unabashedly alt-right.
Marta (Ana de Armas) is Harlan’s caregiver. When things go awry, she’s caught up in circumstances that result in the arrival of two detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan), as well as a slow-talking, Southern private investigator named (with appropriately overtness) Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). The table is thus set for puzzles to be solved, with notions of guilt shifting throughout.
On a strictly puzzle level, Knives Out is a treat. The script wisely provides the usual complications of such dramas, but each reveal is doled out without spoiling the fun or making too much of the process. The plot is an excuse to delve more deeply into these flawed characters and what they represent. The satire is excoriating not only to the usual suspects, but also those who present themselves as being on the morally superior side of the coin. As often is the case, those who feel the most secure in the correctness of their positions are the first to fall when their self-interest comes under attack.
One could sit back and simply revel in how much fun the cast is having playing in the sandbox that Johnson has created. Craig in particular is perfect as he pieces together the mystery elements on the audience’s behalf. Martell’s character is the most challenging and easily could have descended to broad stereotype, but thanks to a script that’s as sharp as the weapon in its title, the actor delivers a great amount of nuance and sophistication.
Shot with appropriately Gothic gauze by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, the film feels almost out of time. The divisions among the family members that feel contemporary are actually part of a much larger conversation that goes beyond any current social media-amplified discourse. This mix is the film’s greatest delight. Johnson mashes up a darkly comic romp with real political sophistication that refuses to eschew entertainment for the sake of enlightenment.
This is a film of surprises that doesn’t rely solely on its plot revelations. This is a film to watch and rewatch for the performances alone, yet I’m betting on a second (and third… and forth) viewing that one will get even more out of it, especially as our current politics are likely to become even more entrenched and we silo more and more from even those with whom we’re closely related.
Knives Out cuts deep. Johnson’s gifts for storytelling and genre mashup remain well honed. It’s a bleak film that doesn’t succumb to nihilism. The biggest mystery of all is how it manages to get all these ingredients working without succumbing to bloat or pretentiousness. Instead, we’re treated to one of the most fun, and definitely one of the most smart, films of the year.