As further evidence that he is one of the most agile and versatile writer-directors currently working, Rian Johnson has jumped genres once again in following up Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), his controversial entry in the post-George Lucas space saga, with Knives Out, a deliriously engrossing murder-mystery that wears its old-fashioned bona fides on its stylish, highly self-aware sleeve. Throughout his films Johnson has displayed a fascination with, and a real knack for, writing dialogue that harkens back to older cinematic forms, but is thoroughly embedded in the here and now-his audacious debut, Brick (2005), was essentially a '40s-era gumshoe mystery with period-specific dialogue and plot mechanics that took place in a modern day California high school-and he does something very similar here, giving us an Agatha Christie-esque whodunit in which a wealthy patriarch's apparent suicide is called into question and the greedy members of his extended family are all suspects because they all have something to gain from his death.
That set-up and the film's setting, an enormous, isolated mansion with secret doors, hidden rooms, and cavernous ornate spaces, is pure Christie, but the characters are pure Johnson, an amusing rogue's gallery of spoiled adult children whose livelihoods hinge on Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), their multi-millionaire mystery-writer father who is found the morning after his 85th birthday party with his neck slit, apparently by his own hand. Each of his children and their spouses and children are in some way financially dependent on Harlan even though they tell themselves they are all "self-made." His oldest daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), rely on his money to fuel their Boston real estate business, and their son Random (Chris Evans) needs it to fund his posh playboy lifestyle. Harlan's oldest son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs his publishing empire, and his widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) needs it for both her lifestyle business and to send her daughter to college. All of these characters, along with Harlan's nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), are at his house for his birthday party, the night he supposedly commits suicide, and, as we gradually learn, each character has a driving motivation to see the old man dead.
Much of what we learn is through the questioning of the family members by local police detective Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a drawling Southern detective-the "Last of the Gentleman Sleuths," as he is christened in a New Yorker profile-who has been mysteriously hired by an anonymous party to conduct his own investigation. Each character spins their answers in ways that benefit them, and Johnson amusingly frames them in front of an enormous circular art piece composed entirely of knives pointed toward the center of the circle. Because they tell different and partial versions of the events that transpired the night before, Johnson allows us only bits and pieces at a time, sometimes leading us to one conclusion and then suddenly revealing a hitherto unheard line of dialogue or otherwise unseen action that forces us to re-evaluate what we thought we know.
And then, about midway through the film, he does something incredibly daring, surprising, and altogether wonderful: He reveals who the murderer is. Just as Hitchcock did in Vertigo (1958), he gives us the solution to the film's mystery (or, should I say, one of the film's mysteries) long before the film is over, which is a calculated gambit that forces us to experience a familiar genre from an entirely different angle. Johnson's daring here is typical of his work; he did something similar in Looper (2012), his time-travelling sci-fi thriller that also turned into an unexpectedly different movie about halfway through. But, the manner in which he turns the tables here flips everything upside down, as we must quickly shift from wondering who did it to wondering if the person who did it will get away with it (in an additional twist, the culprit ends up working right alongside Benoit Blanc, who, despite being apparently unaware of how close he is to the suspect, is a highly capable and intuitive sleuth).
Of course, that is hardly all there is, and Johnson piles on twist after turn right up until the final moments; after a while, you give up trying to guess where it's going and just cruise along for the ride. The film is presented with such confidence, such stylish aplomb, such assurance that its intrigue and its humor will stick every landing that you can't help but be drawn into its highly insular world. Johnson isn't shy about laying it on thick-from Craig's Shelby Foote-inspired drawl, to Evans's arrogant mugging, to Nathan Johnson's full-throated musical score, to a character who can't help but vomit why lying-and it all works. Not many movies can get away with a character saying, without a hint of irony, "I suspect foul play," but this one does.
Johnson has quite a bit to say about the rich and how they live in the Trump era, and a large part of the film's success rests on his ability to root the mystery (and later suspense) in the assumed privilege of its navel-gazing WASP protagonists, some of whom are more honest about their advantages than others (Joni, in particular, is the kind of snide, insufferable armchair liberal who decries children being put in cages and hits all the anti-Trump talking points, but clearly relishes her own material status). Johnson stages their familial conflict in a way that is wonderfully familiar even though it is transpiring among a bunch of self-absorbed one-percenters who have deluded themselves into thinking that they have climbed the economic ladder on their own merits-the great fallacy that buoys the wealthy's misguided sense of moral superiority.
No one ever mentions the name "Trump" directly, but the current administration's policies, particularly those involving immigration, provide plenty of grist for heated family discussion. Walt's teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), who is always on his phone, is at one point described as "Nazi" and an "alt-right troll," while Richard makes a self-aggrandizing argument about illegal immigration and tries to draw Marta into it as evidence, which evokes both the manner in which people are often reduced to faceless pawns and the general lack of knowledge Americans have about the world outside their own (no on in the family seems to know where Marta is actually from, and at various points they assume she is from Ecuador, Uruguay, and Brazil). What makes Knives Out truly memorable, though, and politically meaningful, is that Johnson is invested in the importance of genuine human morality, the kind that involves doing the right thing even when it might not be the most advantageous in the moment. For all its humorous political jabs, Knives Out is really a parable about human decency and how it ultimately trumps greed.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Lionsgate
Overall Rating: (4)
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