A clever, politically inclined crowd-pleaser with enough laughs and pitch-perfect performances to keep you enthralled even if you solve its mystery.
If you’ve seen even just a glimmer of the marketing for Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to his mostly successful but notably controversial previous feature Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you’ll probably have seen how it plays up its identity as a classic whodunnit. It’s even gone so far as to make the tag line a cheeky response: “…Hell, any of them could have done it”. It’s a film that’s proud to be giving audiences a classic performance-driven Hollywood murder mystery, with aims to be the satisfying holiday-season crowd-pleaser that gets people talking in a time when that can sometimes be difficult if you’re not an established franchise or Disney.
But a classic whodunnit this is not, at least not quite. There’s been plenty of talk already about how this acts as a modernized update for the genre and for good reason — this is a star-studded comedic thriller that distinctly exists as a contemporary product of our current social, political, and social climate. There’s a very modern snarky wit that runs through much of the dialogue (though delivered through delightfully hammed-up performances), and blasé references to Instagram, Twitter, and New Yorker articles on Twitter. Perhaps most notable are the sequences of heated political exchanges and some Extremely Online activist language sprinkled throughout. Included are references to red hats, illegal immigrants, and children in cages, as well as terms such as “liberal snowflake” and “alt-right troll” hurled between members of the bickering Thrombey family.
I’m not sure how much these segments and throw-away lines add to any of the thematic resonance of the film and, from my perspective, they really only serve as deliberately incendiary diversions that may ruffle a few feathers (it might actually be perfect that this movie is coming out around the holiday season). They’re the most heavy-handed aspect of a story that already has otherwise astute implicit political dynamics given the current class conversation America is currently in the midst of. After meeting all the members of the Thrombey family, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick one to genuinely root for. Each one of them is a special kind of awful or insufferable in their own way, none of them being particularly grief-ridden by the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) but all of whom are desperately anticipating the will reading. Just about every Thrombey member is selfish and undeserving of anything potentially left behind for them, a point the movie makes sure doesn’t go disregarded in what is ultimately a critique on upper-class greed and white privilege. Trump is never mentioned by name, but the heavy tension that has blanketed the country since his election is felt throughout.
At the heart of all this is Marta Cabera (Ana de Armas), Harlen’s immigrant caretaker whom the other Thrombey’s mostly disregard or harbor a passive disdain for that grows more prominent as the plot progresses (it’s worth noting they don’t even seem to know which country she came from). Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) enlists her as his insider witness because of her inability to lie without throwing up, a convenient but entertaining gag that makes for some of the film’s best sequences. Armas and Craig are both complete show-stealers here, Armas delivering a warm and endearing performance to counteract the toxicity of the rest of the family, and Craig turning up the theatricality to a cartoonish high. His exaggerated southern drawl and completely earnest delivery of the most stereotypical movie-detective dialogue ever veers the film close to the point of parody, but actually ends up a highlight and feels more knowingly tongue-in-cheek, in a good way. As close as the film comes to being smarmy and potentially annoying, it never feels like it’s being too ironic for its own good; this is a good example of modernizing a genre while recognizing and having fun with the established tropes that have come before.
It also has the benefit of being genuinely skillfully assembled, as well as very funny. Johnson is obviously a skilled writer/director and he impresses in how he is able to subvert your expectations as to what you’re actually getting into with this film midway through but also manages to circle back around to give you exactly what you wanted. The actual mystery is an efficiently constructed maze of red herrings and unexpected detours, and the film does a good job of leading you down the wrong path so that the final reveal makes perfect sense but was completely out of mind. Some more adept viewers (not me) will be able to see the twists coming from the very beginning, but I’d say it hardly matters in a movie that’s otherwise this riotously entertaining, and with such a stellar ensemble cast to boot. Knives Out may bear a few defects of the logged-on social media age but at its best its an exceptionally clever endeavor that plays great with a receptive audience, has a little more than murder on its mind, and lives up to the genre it genuinely seems to admire so much.
Trace Sauveur has been a regular critic at Ready Steady Cut since March 2019.