Saturday, November 23, 2019

Knives Out (2019) Review

Directed by
Rian Johnson

Knives Out is a classic murder mystery with a completely fresh take that wraps it into a twisted web that becomes more and more entertaining as it is untangled.

The original creation of Rian Johnson, the creative mind behind 2012's Looper and 2017's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out tells the story of the death and subsequent investigation of acclaimed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  What appears at first to be an open-and-shut case of suicide following his 85th birthday party, the investigation reveals there may be more going on than first thought as Harlan's entire immediate family shows motives for his demise.  Was it the successful daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) who disagreed with how generous he was with parts of the family?  Was it her husband (Don Johnson) who Harlan was going reveal was having an affair?  Was it their son (Chris Evans) who was seen having an argument with Harlan at they party?  Was it Harlan's son (Michael Shannon) who was getting let go from the family business?  Was it the widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) who was getting cut off from Harlan's generous giving?  Was it Harlan's nurse (Ana de Armas) who was closest to him?  This is what Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), and the mysterious private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) have to figure out.

To set the stage for the entire film, it opens with the interrogation of each family member and their interactions with Harlan the day of the party/death.  This allows for the audience to get to know each character individually in a way that otherwise would be difficult in a true ensemble film like this.  The approach to these interviews is unique as well.  Instead of leaving you guessing, flashbacks reveal exactly what happened with each character during the party, which is then capped by how they lie about it to the investigators.  The only one that knows all the family secrets is Harlan's nurse and best friend, who has some secrets of her own.

This film and story have the feel of a classic whodunnit.  This could have easily been based on an Agatha Christie novel and definitely shows some inspiration from the 1985 classic Clue.  However, Knives Out is able to be fresh and original despite the obvious comparisons.  There are two main reasons for this: the cast and the filmmaker.

First, the cast. There are many star-studded casts that turn out to be horrible movies, but this one was different.  Let's compare it with a close relative, the Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express from 2017.  This film also had an all star cast including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, and Kenneth Branagh.  This film didn't work, and part of that was because of the cast.  Films like this seem to be more concerned with getting stars instead of making a movie.  It is rare big budget movie stars make a good ensemble film.  This is where Knives Out is different.  Yes, it is a star-studded cast, but it is a different kind of star.  These stars are known for being great supporting character actors.  They were cast because they fit the role, not because of their name.  No one is fighting for screen time.  Actors like Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, and Christopher Plummer are masters at serving the story above their ego.  Even the biggest stars in the case, Daniel Craig and Chris Evans, are not your typical movie stars.  They both just fell into roles that made them household names, but at their core they both are better served being a supporting piece.  Add to this budding stars like Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) and Ana de Armas (soon to be the next Bond girl), and you have an incredibly well-rounded cast that just so happened to be filled with household names.

Second, the filmmaker.  Rian Johnson is quickly becoming one of my favorite working directors.  I first noticed him with Looper, one of my favorite films of 2012 for its unique and creative take on sci-fi.  Then came The Last Jedi, a polarizing film that Star Wars fans hated but movie fans loved because of his unique and creative take on the franchise.  It felt like a Star Wars film, but it also felt fresh.  Now you have Knives Out, where he does it again.  He takes a classic and proven genre and story line and, while reminding everyone where the inspiration came from, re-imagines what it could be with his unique and creative perspective.  He is able to make a film feel so familiar yet so original at the same time.  He has also proven he can do it over and over in different genres.  Rian Johnson is becoming one of my favorite working directors, and his film releases are turning into events in the way we celebrate a new Scorsese or Tarantino film.

This was probably the most fun I had at the theater all year.  It was also my first ever early screening, which added to the fun.  If all early screenings can be like this, I will have to go to a lot more of them.  I cannot recommend this film enough.  Go see it as soon as you can.  You will not be disappointed.

4 stars

Watch the trailer here:

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