Before making the subversive “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Rian Johnson specialized in taking genres that were no longer in vogue and updating them, doing so with a film noir, crime caper and heady time travel movie. Johnson has returned to that line of work with “Knives Out,” and it may be his best effort yet.
A whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie, this film centers on the Thrombey family, whose wealth comes from patriarch Harlan’s (Christopher Plummer) book empire. When Harlan dies of an apparent suicide the night of his 85th birthday, the police and a private investigator (Daniel Craig) dig deeper to see if one of his eccentric family members actually murdered him.
The all-star cast will be the draw for many who see “Knives Out,” and it is exceptional. The ensemble acquits itself well, though a delightfully charismatic and amusing Craig, an arrogant jerk of a son played by Chris Evans and a warm, kind nurse played by Ana de Armas stand out. De Armas, particularly, will be an actress to watch in the coming years, as she nails this role.
As with many ensemble films, the biggest issue with the movie is it leaves you wanting more. Virtually everybody gets at least one or two moment to shine, but the cast is good enough that viewers want to see more from them. So, when actors like Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Toni Colette get lost, it is disappointing.
Moviegoers hardly get a chance to dwell on that though because Johnson as screenwriter and director tells this mystery masterfully. It is familiar in its beats, but Johnson alters things just enough that it feels fresh, like in an early interview sequence that crosscuts perfectly. Johnson also doles out the twists and turns at just the right moments, keeping viewers guessing. Finally, every detail and nugget in the film is eventually consequential, which is immensely satisfying.
Additionally, Johnson’s use of comedy is terrific. The film has laughs throughout, and the jokes are a fun blend of timely, topical satire and broader, slapstick humor. And Johnson is skilled enough of a filmmaker that the comedy never lessens the suspense.
While “Knives Out” is a piece of entertainment first and foremost, Johnson does have something to say with this film, and that timely social commentary helps make this potentially tired genre feel modern. The movie takes aim, mainly, at a certain type of white entitlement with hilarious and thought-provoking results. The brilliant final two shots of the film are perhaps the best example of this, as they ensure viewers who may have missed the rest of the themes will realize the film leaves you with more to chew on than a typical mystery.
Those underlying ideas may rub some people the wrong, but if they skip “Knives Out” those individuals will miss one of the best, most entertaining movies of 2019. I give it four out of five stars.
“Knives Out” stars Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette LaKeith Stanfield and Christopher Plummer. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references and drug material and runs 2 hours and 10 minutes.