Knives Out (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The funny thing is, for a whodunit picture, it is not difficult to figure out the person, or persons, responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist who has so much wealth, his grown children cannot help but to act like vultures even before his barely cold body is in the ground. Needless to say, it is also not at all a challenge to determine the motive for the murder. The joy, however, is embedded in the question of how. The answers are so specific and executed with so much vitality that when they are revealed eventually, they kind of just take your breath away. This is the writer-director Rian Johnson that I know, the mind behind inspired works like “Brick” and “Looper.” He is in top form here.
Funnier still is that the more I tried to answer the questions using only my brain, substantive solutions prove to become more elusive. Therein lies its source of enjoyment: Because Johnson is aware that we will approach the puzzle in this manner, he must create enough kinks in the screenplay that upends our expectations. It seems we are dealing with an ordinary mystery—and in plenty of ways it is—but it is far more self-aware than it purports itself to be. Even those most experienced with mystery stories are likely to have a ball with this.
We are introduced to a slew of colorful characters with abrasive personalities—every one of them suspicious. There is, of course, Harlan’s children: eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who found success in the real estate business and youngest Walt (Michael Shannon) who functions as the acting CEO of his father’s publishing company. The middle child, Neil, passed away years prior, but his spouse Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru, remains highly connected to the family. The expertly paced initial interview shows us three facts: 1) their relationship with the deceased is strained but complex, 2) they are capable of lying—even though they may not be very good at it, and 3) they are hardwired to protect the family legacy. Putting on a successful front is an absolute must; when it is threatened, they react as though it is a national calamity. Clearly, these people, including their offsprings (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), are born and bred in privilege. It is the only lifestyle they know.
The investigation is led by Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and he is supported by private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). I wished the former had more of the central role in the case despite the latter’s sterling reputation as an investigator. I did not get a definitive impression of how Elliot thinks, specifically his style of deduction. It would have been preferred to show the duo working together, even clashing on occasion. Blanc, on the other hand, is full of personality. He is attentive, quick-witted, and amusing in the way he underplays his dry sense of humor. When he speaks, it is often to make a point. And when he is silent, well, he remains a presence. He is the type of person with whom you wish to know his take. Craig plays Blanc with gusto, charm, and urgency. It is one of his more memorable roles in a while.
Another crucial piece of the mystery involves Harlan’s nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas). From a Latin immigrant family, she is our conduit to the Thrombey’s posh bubble. The script is peppered with timely social commentary in regards to how white folks of privilege tend to look down on ethnic minority groups by way of kind words and actions. “You’re almost like a part of this family.” We are meant to cringe and feel uncomfortable. And laugh, too, at its honesty.
The intelligently written and thoroughly entertaining “Knives Out” never betrays the audience despite numerous high-stake left turns. It invites the viewers to look closely, to recognize possible red herrings, to understand how characters think and predict how they might respond. We hang onto every line because a clue may be lodged in there.