In the past two decades, Hollywood has seen a lot of revivals — musicals, westerns, slashers, disaster films. But the murder-mystery genre remains scarce.
While 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was a stylish interpretation of an Agatha Christie classic, it was lacking in personality, humor and charisma. “Knives Out” feels much closer to what the genre needs to have a resurgence.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Looper”), “Knives Out” establishes one of the most talented and comedically gifted ensembles we’ve seen this year and knocks it out of the park.
Taking place after wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies from a slashed throat, the film follows private Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, with a delightfully ridiculous southern accent) as he traverses the departed’s sprawling home and questions members of his family to see if they had enough motive to commit murder.
Among others in this dysfunctional family full of WASPy hangers-on, there’s Linda Drysdale (a scenery-chewing Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul, and her bitter husband, Richard (Don Johnson, in fine form). There’s also Joni (an always-brilliant Toni Collette), a vocal-frying, status-obsessed lifestyle guru; Walter Thrombey (a surprisingly funny Michael Shannon), the scorned son; and “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans), the black sheep of the family.
While the family bickers back and forth, the movie focuses in flashbacks on the memories of the housekeeper, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, in a standout performance), Harlan’s nurse and only friend. Unable to tell a lie without vomiting, Blanc uses her outside perspective to walk through everything leading up to Harlan’s death and deliberate on whether it was murder or suicide.
The overarching mystery of “Knives Out” is not particularly surprising. While I appreciate some of Johnson’s attempts at diversion, anyone who has played a game of “Clue” can figure it out with ease.
What makes “Knives Out” work is its cast’s crackling chemistry with each other, Shannon, Collette, Evans and Curtis smirk as they trade barbs back and forth, and that’s balanced out with Cabrera’s sweet relationship with Harlan before his death.
Johnson utilizes a lot of the familiar murder-mystery tropes, as the movie frequently bounces between timelines and varying character perspectives. But he never cheats the audience by having a character turn out to be something he or she isn’t. The rich relatives are corrupt to the bone. The sweeter characters are gentle souls.
The middle part of the movie tends to sag, with some ruses and red herrings that come off as more laborious than thrilling. Some stumbles aside, “Knives Out” is almost always engaging and funny, as Johnson’s camerawork swirls around the Thrombey estate with long tracking shots and intensely personal close-ups. He shows off how talented the cast is with a simple Cheshire grin from Collette or nervous swallow from de Armas.
Most of all, “Knives Out” is an absolute riot of a movie. It’s one of those rare ensemble pieces where the joy the cast and crew has translates directly into fun for the audience.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live