There's a moment that occurs early in Rian Johnson's incisive and stylish whodunnit Knives Out when I realized that this was going to be a film that would win me over.
Indeed, I was correct.
The moment, and this is far from a spoiler, occurs as we're being introduced to the luxury mansion of renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose body is soon to be discovered by a shocked but not surprised housemaid whose response is one of delicate balance. It's a clue, one could say, but it's a brilliant clue that avoids the usual expected response that we find in similar scenarios.
Knives Out is filled with other similar surprises, quiet little bits of wonder that balance writer/director Johnson's loyalty to the genre yet defiance of it. Johnson's work here is the work of an assured filmmaker, a filmmaker who proves himself to once again be one of the best of the up-and-coming filmmakers.
Johnson is both a writer and a director with great precision. He appreciates specific moments. He recognizes that specific moments can become exactly what people remember about a film. He realizes that specific moments, both visually and in terms of dialogue, can make or break a film. Knives Out never breaks precisely because Johnson pays attention to those moments and practically dares us to keep track of them.
It's very likely that when you first heard that Rian Johnson was following up Star Wars: The Last Jedi with a modestly budgeted Agatha Christie influenced genre pic called Knives Out that you giggled a little. You may have even laughed and said "Well, there goes his 15 minutes of fame."
Instead, Johnson turns the joke back on all of us by turning Knives Out into one of 2019's most entertaining motion pictures and one that easily features one of the year's best ensembles.
Knives Out is in many ways a rather classic whodunnit - except that it's actually not a classic whodunnit.
That doesn't make sense and it probably shouldn't. Knives Out gives us quite a bit of information in the film's first 15 minutes, though the relevance of that information remains uncertain throughout most of the film's just over two-hour running time.
Knives Out is presented as a rather classic Agatha Christie-style set up of a motion picture. The family has gathered at the home of the patriarch, the aforementioned Harlan Thrombey, who will soon be a victim of someone whose identity will not be discovered until Rian Johnson decides it's time for us to discover it.
Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon are here as Harlan's adult children; Don Johnson is a son-in-law, while Toni Collette is a daughter-in-law; Chris Evans is the kind of grandson you immediately suspect because he's essentially worthless and appears to be up to no good. Daniel Craig supplies solid evidence of life after Bond as master sleuth Benoit Blanc, while much of Knives Out is told from the perspective of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's former nurse whose presence here is far more meaningful in terms of character and structure than one initially realizes and whose character brings to life that Johnson's film is much more than a simple whodunnit.
While much of Knives Out looks and feels like classic Agatha Christie, Johnson's script clearly sets the stage in a contemporary political realm where the dialogue is exacting, precise, witty, and rather painful. The entire ensemble cast is a joy to watch here with everyone down to the most minor player clearly having a blast and relishing the chance to bathe in Johnson's exquisite dialogue and to bring to life a film that is both stylishly fun and socially relevant. Ana de Armas, who has never quite attracted the attention she deserves, is an absolute gem here and easily one of the film's stand-outs. Daniel Craig practically sloshes around his dialogue and expertly brings alive the film's humor, while even Christopher Plummer, despite dying early in the film, is an absolute joy to watch in mostly flashback sequences. There's even a rather precious walk-on role for those who appreciate beloved character actors.
Watch for it.
During an awards season that is bringing acclaim to Martin Scorsese for his The Irishman, I'd dare say that it's Rian Johnson whose directorial light shines brightest with less than 1/4 of Marty's budget. The Irishman is a good film, of course, but with Knives Out Rian Johnson proves himself to be one of contemporary cinema's most creative, inspired, disciplined, and downright entertaining filmmakers working today.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic