All Images Courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures
Author: Mark Bautista
It’s a set-up you’ve probably heard a thousand times before: The rich, old patriarch (Christopher Plummer) has been murdered on his birthday. “Whodunit” is the question on everyone’s mind. Was it his headstrong daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis)? His unambitious son (Michael Shannon)? His daughter’s husband (Don Johnson)? Or his jerk of a grandson (Chris Evans)? These are only a few members of the family listed, but private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) makes it clear— everyone in the family is a suspect.
Of course, with this being a murder-mystery film, I don’t think it’d be fair to discuss much more of the plot with you. So what can I talk about?
As always, an audience’s investment in a film is a true mark of quality, and if the gasps, laughs, and shrieks I heard during my recent theater experience were any indication, Knives Out is the crowd-pleaser of the holiday season. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a film that’s hit its mark with each audience member, notwithstanding superhero movies with built-in moments of emotional response. Clearly, Writer-Director Rian Johnson knows his stuff (even if certain Star Wars fanatics beg to differ).
I am impressed with Johnson, not only because his script is so meticulously crafted and tautly edited to keep our interests for over two hours, but also because he is aware that the murder-mystery, being a genre onto itself, has its own tropes and clichés that others may have fallen back on.
Johnson knows that the audience is expecting something they’ve seen before, like wacky suspects and red herrings, and he gives us that for the most part, while updating the genre to modern day. Though Knives Out takes place in a gothic, three-story 20th century mansion, one with secret trap doors and an archive of old books, and has a premise more than 150 years old, Johnson refreshes it with a 21st century sensibility. Instagram, Neo-Nazi, and immigration references galore. Oh, yes, there is a timely political message in the film, one that’s tastefully handled without being preachy.
But what I can still talk about are the actors. If the plot is similar to previous ones in the genre, what saves it is the casting. There better be some damn good performances to distract us from the tropes, and the cast, made up of all tried and true actors, delivers in spades. I cannot stress enough how stacked this ensemble is, with each one working on Knives Out to follow up their work in Get Out, Hereditary, Halloween, 13 Reasons Why, It, and Blade Runner 2049. Oh, and a couple small franchises like The Avengers and James Bond. If there was a “movies made with the most iconic actors of the 2010 decade,” Knives Out would be it. And they all kill their respective roles, and they do it while having fun.
There’s a pre-requisite of the murder-mystery movie that the characters that inhabit it are characters—everyone has eccentricities played to 11, give or take a straight man (played hilariously dry by Lakeith Stanfield, the detective who believes the case is an open-and-shut suicide). You have the “I’m-not-racist, but…” son-in-law (again, Don Johnson), the ditzy lifestyle guru who reads tweets about New Yorker articles (Toni Collette), and the wide-eyed, innocent nurse (Ana de Armas) who has a compulsion to puke when she lies. Even the more straight-laced of the family, like Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon’s characters, get more and more unraveled as the clarity of who gets their father’s inheritance disappears. “You’re effing useless,” Curtis spits at her father’s estate lawyer.
Save for Armas’s character, who has a much more surprising role in the film, these are not particularly deep or complex characters, but they seem to be an actor’s delight, as we never for a second doubt that they’re having fun with these roles. They’re playing it with intensity, but in a theatrical, exaggerated way; juicy roles for actors.
And perhaps the most delicious performances come from Chris Evans and Daniel Craig, respectively playing the jerk-wad grandson of the victim and the Southern detective asked to solve the case. I’m sure a decade of playing Captain America left Evans itching to play something totally different—the s***-eating grin plastered on his face and his attitude is a far cry from the straight-laced superhero we’ve become accustomed to. And Daniel Craig, who we always see as the stoic James Bond, pulls a Southern drawl out of his acting bag to play Benoit Blanc. Even if it’s not a particularly convincing accent, Craig’s performance strikes an awesome balance between goofy, kind-hearted, and clever—he’s simply captivating, and is a total success.
Knives Out is a triumph, a blast of a movie, for Rian Johnson; I’m happy to see him return to an original film following Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I feel Johnson is best when he’s without the constraints of a massive franchise. Knives Out is Johnson being smartly inventive with just plain fun, and in a world where you often have to choose between either, this is a film with an insanely enjoyable and energetic combination of the two.
Mark Bautista |Peanut Butter Enthusiast | KXSU Arts Reporter