'Knives Out': Film Review | TIFF 2019

A killer good time.
11/27/2019

Daniel Craig plays the wily detective brought in to untangle the truth in Rian Johnson's old-fashioned all-star whodunit, as the family of Christopher Plummer's famed mystery writer circle like vultures.

In the typically mischievous opening shot of Knives Out, the camera frames a creepy Gothic Revival mansion skirted in morning mist as black guard dogs run across the leafy grounds in unsettling slow-motion. The scene could be from a century or more ago until it cuts to an interior kitchen shot and closes in on a novelty mug bearing the words: "My house. My rules. My coffee." That mug, like everything else in Rian Johnson's ingeniously plotted, tremendously entertaining and deviously irreverent crowd-pleaser, will figure significantly in a later payoff. A delicious throwback to the all-star whodunit, this juicy comedy thriller is a treat from start to finish, which should make it a sizable hit for Lionsgate.

"Look around, the guy practically lives in the Clue board," observes the Massachusetts State Police Trooper (Noah Segan) assigned to work the case alongside Detective Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), when Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the world's best-selling mystery writer, is found with his throat slit the morning after his 85th birthday party.

That winking reference is one of many that range from the amusingly obvious — a quick glimpse of Angela Lansbury tapping away at a typewriter in a TV rerun of Murder, She Wrote, dubbed in Spanish — to craftier Easter eggs like having one major character sing a snippet of a song by Stephen Sondheim, who collaborated with Anthony Perkins on the script of another starry murder mystery, The Last of Sheila.

That kitschy pleasure dates back to 1973, and Johnson clearly has a big soft spot for the lavish whodunits of that era, epitomized by Agatha Christie adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, with their staggering parades of acting royalty, and sumptuous production and costume designs. There's also a wicked streak of Hitchcock in the devilish plotting, a dash of the twisted meta-mystery of Sleuth and Deathtrap, and a sly sense of humor that recalls the 1976 Neil Simon satire Murder by Death. All that makes Knives Out a more playful and far more contemporary renewal of the genre than Kenneth Branagh's pageant-like 2017 Orient Express remake.

In one especially fun flourish, production designer David Crank gives a nod to Game of Thrones by having the various members of the Thrombey family and staff interrogated against a macabre art piece with knives, axes and saws fanning out like the back of the Iron Throne.

The key figure, of course, is the story's Hercule Poirot counterpart, a courtly gumshoe with a Tennessee drawl and a florid turn of phrase named Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig with infectious enjoyment. While the cops are ready to call Harlan's death an open-and-shut suicide case, Blanc suspects foul play, and as he methodically gathers evidence, everyone becomes a suspect. At the very least, almost everyone appears to have had a motive, even more so once the reading of the will (Johnson recruits Star Wars buddy Frank Oz as the family lawyer) freezes them out of the multimillion-dollar estate.

That setup creates the opportunity for some lip-smacking character work from a crackerjack cast. Harlan's daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a real estate maven married to smug philanderer Richard (Don Johnson). Their aptly named son Ransom (Chris Evans) is the black sheep of the family, a playboy whose idle ways are frowned upon by a clan who like to regard themselves, somewhat falsely, as self-made entrepreneurs. Linda's brother Walt (Michael Shannon) manages his father's publishing empire, though not with an entirely free hand, while his teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) keeps busy trolling liberals on social media. Harlan's other daughter, Joni (Toni Collette), is a lifestyle guru whose health, beauty and spiritual wellness empire sounds more than a little Goopy.

While the movie opens with Harlan's housekeeper (Edi Patterson) finding him dead, recaps of the previous evening's birthday celebration from multiple viewpoints allow the ever-formidable Plummer to show what a teasing old rogue the author was. His taste for elaborate games is reflected all over the intricate details of Crank's marvelous set, where most of the action unfolds.

One major puzzle that even the man himself takes time to figure out is who hired Blanc with an anonymous envelope full of cash and why. He enlists Harlan's trusted nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) to serve as Watson to his Holmes, and her presence among the complacently wealthy Thrombeys allows the writer-director to stir in some clever and ultimately subversive class commentary, taking aim at white entitlement. There's a very funny running joke about how none of them can remember which Latin American country Marta's mother hails from, and a discussion of the current immigrant debate in America is a cringe-inducing hoot, with the ghastly Richard excelling at tone-deaf self-righteousness.

Johnson's screenplay in many ways is the star here, with its well-oiled plot mechanics and guileful twists and turns, constantly pulling the rug out from under the audience as much as the characters. Blanc calls the mystery "a case with a hole in the middle. A donut." And as the complications pile up, he revises that description to a donut hole within a donut hole.

But the smart script would be nothing without actors able to keep up with its surprises, and there's not a weak link in the ensemble. Everyone gets his or her moments, but if I had to single out some especially choice contributions, Curtis is in impeccably brittle form, Evans is hilariously reprehensible and Collette is divine as a deeply sincere phony. Craig, chewing the scenery with relish, and the charming de Armas (put to much better use here than in Olivier Assayas' disappointing Wasp Network) provide the indispensable thread that binds the large gallery of characters together.

Along with Crank's set, which is like a cabinet of wonders you want more time to explore, Jenny Eagan's costumes reveal a lot about the characters. Steve Yedlin's camera snakes around the old house with an all-seeing eye, and the lush orchestral score by the director's cousin and frequent collaborator, Nathan Johnson, provides the perfect complement for a film that does an expert job of juggling gripping, humorous and suspenseful moods. The knack for dizzying trickery that was built into the very title of Johnson's 2012 feature, Looper, seems here to have found its ideal form.

(Knives Out is produced by MRC, which shares a parent company, Valence Media, with The Hollywood Reporter.)

Production companies: Lionsgate, MRC, T-Street
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, Frank Oz, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, K. Callan, Noah Segan, M. Emmet Walsh, Marlene Forte
Director-screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Producers: Rian Johnson, Ram Bergman
Executive producer: Tom Karnowski
Director of photography: Steve Yedlin
Production designer: David Crank
Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
Music: Nathan Johnson
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Casting: Mary Vernieu
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Lionsgate

130 minutes