Directed By Rian Johnson
Starring – Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana De Armas
The Plot – When renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate just after his 85th birthday, the inquisitive and debonair Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) is mysteriously enlisted to investigate. From Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Blanc sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan’s untimely death.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong adult language, sexual references, and drug material
– Stacked cast. Where do I start with the single best ensemble cast outside of a superhero movie this year? There are some performances like Daniel Craig, Ana De Armas, and Chris Evans, which are the very best of their storied careers, and then there’s no shortage of incredible big names in the backdrop, like Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, and especially Toni Collette, who illustrate the dysfunction of this crumbling family. The energy from all proves that the casting was perfect, but beyond that each spin turns the gears of indulgence one step further with the pendulum of progression, and establishes this as a complete group effort. While my favorite is easily Craig, with his consistency for a southern drawl accent, as well as his meticulous investigative skills which poke and prod at each character under the spotlight, the hearty innocence of Armas, and the conniving arrogance of Evans can’t be under-appreciated. This is what a movie looks like when the actors get lost in the heat of their characters, and it makes for as easy of a two hour sit as possible because their demeanor towards one another fleshes out decades of mental anguish and neurotics that transcends them beyond just this one lone movie.
– Unpredictable. I was on the right track to accurately predicting the culprit in this movie, but my answer left so much out of the final spin of the picture, cementing what was truly intelligent about its investigation. The who is really the least important part of everything that transpires, but the how and why is what the movie focuses on so much more. It narrows its suspects down immensely within the first hour of the movie, and just when it does so, it throws motivation in the way of the actions by certain characters, which is as important as the final resolution. The interrogation scenes are witty, contrasting, and full of reflective assertion, which plays well off of one another. Capped off by two respective timelines, current and the night in question, which never convolute the progression of either narrative, nor do they have trouble distinguishing which is which, considering one takes place in the day, and the other at night.
– Tonal precision. I was really surprised at just how much humor was involved in this movie, and even more than that how cleverly deposited each of it landed in its intended purpose. For Whodunnit? mysteries, seriousness can lose the fun of the gimmick in translation. Most recently, “Murder On the Orient Express” succeeded at a stylishly sleek design and intriguing characters, but left much to be desired in the execution, which was far too serious to interact with its audience. “Knives Out” doesn’t have this problem, as the silliness and clumsy efforts of the characters trying to free themselves as suspects allows the script to play out several hilarious situations that only further illustrate how human each of them feel behind closed doors. When there’s money and freedom hanging in the balance, even a family will turn on each other, and not only is this the devilishly delicious offering intentionally released right around Thanksgiving, but it constantly breaks focus in a way that leads to no shortage of hilarious afterthought deliveries, that really force you to stay glued to every word to catch the snarky deposits. More on this later.
– Timely presentation. Watching “Knives Out” reminded me of a combination of Wes Anderson personality in atmosphere and musical incorporation with 70’s exploitation thrillers for experimental camera movements. It brings forth an artistic delivery of production that proves every hand was on-deck, and that Johnson allows them to influence the progression of the investigation. More than anything it’s the crisp editing, which never stalls too late or jumps too early in the proper rendering. Most notably during the interrogation scenes, the different characters almost continue the sentence in a way where the last one left off, elaborating at how many of their stories and answers are starting to run together. Likewise, the side pans and slow meandering shots allow for more facial resonation to take shape and influence the intensity of the scenes, if for no other reason than to truly soak in the permanence of the situation. Finally, the musical score from composer Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin) brings with it an elegance of classical offerings to play into the atmosphere of upper class surroundings. The Johnson’s have collaborated on “Looper”, “Brick”, and many other short films, and they breeze through an air of seamlessness that not only plays coherently with each’s control on their blossoming productional aspects, but also cements the chemistry between them which turns bond into blood.
– Sharp tongue. The dialogue in this film is some of my very favorite of the year, capturing some of the best one-liners and long-winded diatribes that left me hanging onto every word dispersed. It helps that there’s so much personality emoting from each of the talented cast who move in and out of frame, but Johnson as a screenwriter flexes his talent in a way that comprehends the very accents, manuerisms, and fears of every one of his characters, and this allows what is being written to transcend one continuous man writing everything, and instead craft it as the legitimate speech patterns of those he becomes. This is something that I watch for in a lot of movies, but it hasn’t become as obvious as it does in this film, as nothing ever feels like a betrayal or force-feeding for what each character delivers, and it’s what I believe makes each of them so fascinating, even when a majority are morally bankrupt people.
– Fluid pacing. “Knives Out” clocks in at just over two hours on the runtime, and never did I feel the weight of this to where it was compromising to the story, nor forcing me to check my watch every five minutes. Much of the story, especially in the scintillating first act, is pasted together in a way that leaves such little downtime in between, and really forces audiences to remain on their feet at all times if they are going to keep with the flow of information, or even outline their favorites for suspects. The second act is the strength of the film for me, as alliances start to form, bonds are tested, and a bombshell the size of Texas changes everything moving forward. It brings us to the third act resolution, which was not only satisfying for the intelligence of the mental chess game between characters, but also satisfyingly conclusive in tying everything together. It brings forth one of the more fun and investing experiences that I have had in quite sometime, and had me begging for more, even after 125 minutes being wrapped in this case, a sign of quality writing.
– Claustrophobia. Setting is everything for a movie with this much tension surrounding its plot, and thanks to Rian’s decision to helm roughly 90% of this movie in this mansion, we start to feel the urgency and vulnerability of our characters closing down around them, like the walls are growing closer. Some of this is because of the volume of this family, feeling like someone is always listening behind every corner, but most of it is in the set design, which depict some closed quarters in the tightest areas of the house. In particular, the scene of the crime is a stuffed attic, which adds to the wiggle room of the alibi, and always brings matters back to this one isolated location that the characters seem mentally trapped in to play through the events of a night in question. The movie does eventually move off of the house grounds, losing some of that smothering quality that prospers throughout the film, but it always comes back to where it all started, and adds food for thought for how many bad people can be housed under one roof.
– Socially relevant. Did you expect this from a whodunnit? murder mystery? Me either, but Johnson’s poignant script takes the responsibility of elaborating at some of the resounding issues politically and socially that are unfortunately clouding our world for the worst. In this case, it’s done through the eyes of immigration racism through the eyes of five upper class white snobs, who subtly include lines of offensive character definition at the end of their random dialogue, which are meant to cut them down in a derogatory manner. I’ve heard a lot of critics call this out, but I think it’s necessary, especially considering where the imagery and checkmate of the issue resolves itself by film’s end. A protagonist’s success only prospers when an antagonist has had their time to shine, and Johnson’s awareness to include this in this narrative that is in the majority unrelated not only raises necessary awareness for things that immigrants hear and deal with every day, but also makes each of his characters untrustworthy because of how little we truly know about them.
– Production design. This is mostly through the wardrobe and style of decor in the film’s setting. Both of which articulate the personality and influences of what’s important to each of them, once you spend enough time encased in it, but for me the champagne wishes and caviar dreams are second to the brief details that can be missed if you blink at just the wrong time. Without spoiling anything, I will say that you should pay close attention to the objects in frame during the introductions of Christopher Plummer, Ana De Armas, and Daniel Craig. Certain key’s are given to unlock not only motivations, but ultimately fates in where the story takes each of them, and I found it a very fun and secretive way to reward audiences for their dedication to soaking in every frame and angle that this movie had going for it. For me, it was knowing that leaving something which is otherwise so pointless in frame had to have some importance, and as it turns out, I was right.
– Twist faults. As to where the heart of the mystery did intrigue me enough to peak my curiosity and maintain my interest in the dissection of the narrative, the execution for certain deliveries left a bit more to be desired. With the few small twists that are disposed every thirty minutes or so, I was able to sniff them out quite easily once the script headed towards an obvious direction that all but alluded to what I saw coming. In addition to this the final big reveal is satisfying enough in the person who is revealed as the culprit, but the explanation is every bit as tedious and convoluted as last week’s “The Good Liar” did with their big reveal. If you’re someone like me who likes to be able to piece together every bit of the resolution with the evidence we’ve been given throughout the other 90% of the film, then you will be a bit disappointed that some of the final assembly requires a bit more imagination that we would have no chance at piecing together.
My Grade: 9/10 or A