Cast: Ana de Armas (Marta), Daniel Craig (Detective Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Hugh Robinson), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Robinson), Toni Collette (Joni), Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombrey), Don Johnson (Morris Bristow), Michael Shannon (Jack Bressler), LaKeith Stanfield (Detective Troy Archer), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombrey), Riki Lindhome (Donna Thrombrey), Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner)
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Composer: Nathan Johnson
Genre: Mystery, Crime Thriller
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material.
Run Time: 130 minutes
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a fun and competent thriller dressed up as a classic murder mystery. The film is well-paced and delivers more than enough intrigue to hold your attention and keep you guessing throughout it’s two-hour run-time. With the deluge of multi-movie cinematic universes and big budget reboots in recent years, Knives Out feels refreshingly contained and original. This is a movie where you get what you pay for — entertainment, no strings attached.
Knives Out plays its opening scenes straight. Housekeeper Fran (Edi Peterson) discovers her employer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), dead with his throat slashed. Harlan was a popular mystery writer and acquired a considerable amount of wealth from spinning his yarns, so the question of who gets what of his estate and assets hangs over the first act of the film as the concerned parties are introduced. Harlan’s death could be an open and shut case of suicide, but the suspicion of foul play sets up a frame for the film to present cogent portraits of Harlan’s children and other characters through a series of interrogations conducted by two police investigators — Troy Archer (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) — as well as a quirky private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). These initial scenes also offer space for members of the film’s ensemble cast to convey their respective character’s personality and motivations without the pressure to vie against each other for screen-time. That said, the talent arrayed here share an electric chemistry, and the interactions and conversations that ensue later on when they’re all in the same room contribute to the film’s energy and rewatchability.
The plot builds up to a reading of Harlan’s will that catalyzes the cutthroat antics implied by the film’s title. This narrative beat and others are predictable and necessary in terms of structure, but Johnson manages to turn enough of the familiar on its head to make Knives Out seem updated for a modern audience. The staples of the locked-room subgenre of mystery writing are assembled, with a world-renowned private eye among them. But Craig’s Benoit is not a cut-and-paste Poirot; his drawl, larger-than-life persona, and seeming incompetence will split opinions on whether he is a good ol’ boy or a goofball. Many will find him endearing either way, as Craig’s performance pokes fun at the character’s literary ancestry without becoming parodic.
There is also the film’s single, near labyrinthine setting and the class struggle and familial jousting that unravels within it. The Thrombey mansion’s outside appearance is brooding and gothic while its interior feels more like the layout of a board game, complete with hidden rooms, trick windows, and bladed furniture that would look at home in Game of Thrones. The dimly lit chambers of the Thrombey household serve as the setting for impassioned arguments about illegal immigration, mirroring the kinds of dinner table discussions that many Americans at family gatherings can relate to. The subtler details Johnson layers into these scenes speak powerfully to the hypocrisies of class and racial difference without coming off like axe-grinding. For example, Harlan’s son-in-law, Morris Bristow (Don Johnson), hands off his dirty plate to Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse, and fumbles over what South American country she comes from. Harlan’s son and manager of his publishing company, Jack Bressler (Michael Shannon), reassures Marta that she will be taken care of financially for her care and companionship to the family patriarch, yet the Thrombey children frequently dismiss Marta as “the help.”
The maneuvers Johnson executes in Knives Out pay off in ways that shed light on what made his previous project, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so divisive. It is the difference between subverting a franchise counting seven feature films to its name, established lore, and strict rules that fans are invested in versus subverting a genre. In a self-contained vehicle like Knives Out, Johnson has room to renew what is recognizable about mystery fiction, whether through small adjustments that make the film more relatable to contemporary viewers or, in some cases, flipping the script entirely. A whodunit story revolves around the who and how of a crime, but Johnson explicitly pulls the rug out from under this tradition by concluding the first act of Knives Out with a reveal that rearranges our expectations for how a mystery plot should be structured. The key point is that we absorb the shock of this reveal and remain invested in the narrative’s outcome, partly because the film’s characters are so compelling, but also because its genre continues to promise twists, turns, and a grand pay off if we hang around. Decoupled from the pressures of franchise-building, the mystery genre accommodates innovation because the element of surprise inheres within it.
Knives Out feels like a breath of fresh air because it can be enjoyed as a complete package from beginning to end. The mainstream movie scene is glutted with formulaic films based on overused properties, where your mileage may vary depending on how much you’re already invested in the property itself. The formula generally works from a financial perspective, though recent flops like the failed attempt to reboot the Terminator franchise may signal studios to be more discerning about where they direct their cash flow. Ultimately, in a landscape of towering tentpoles, blockbusters, franchises, and remakes, the most surprising twist about Knives Out might be this — that an original, standalone film can still be relevant, viable, or made at all.