Rian Johnson is one of the few American directors working today who is capable of genuine surprise. This talent can lead to sleeper hits such 2012’s Looper with energy and will to do what is rarely done in modern science fiction cinema, or to division as seen in Johnson’s previous work, 2017’s The Last Jedi, where the writer-director’s penchant for subverting expectations left many thin-skinned fans pining for the safety of their own familiar formulas and theories. While it’s great having risk-taking filmmakers head big studio franchises such as Star Wars, it’s not hard to imagine that Johnson finds joy in presenting his own creations, free of established canon and inevitable backlash from entitled fanboys. This joy, this freedom to play within the conventions of genre, is on display in nearly every frame of Knives Out. This sense of fun permeates through Johnson’s witty, cascading script, into a cast stacked with talent, and out to the audience as an undeniably enjoyable collision of fully-developed, horrible people.
On the surface, Knives Out is a classic whodunit-style mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it isn’t long before that formula is broken through a conceit allowing the viewer to see the truth behind the stories told by the family of deceased mystery writer Harlan Thrombly (Christopher Plummer, actually playing younger than his real age). These contrasting stories quickly establish each character as being separate from the collection of stereotypes which populate the tales Knives Out draws its inspiration from including Jamie Lee Curtis’s go-getting entrepreneur, self-made just like her dad, her husband Don Johnson who conveniently quotes Hamilton when in “mixed” company, Michael Shannon as the publisher of his father’s vast works, and social media influencer Toni Colette with her own brand of lifestyle products, all of whom are entirely dependent on the fictional empire built by their deceased patriarch. And all of whom, as established during these opening interrogation scenes, have their own reasons to murder said benefactor. At the center of this particular donut, and the donut within that donut, is Harlan’s trusted nurse Marta, played with deep pathos and sweetness by Ana de Armas. The set-up may be typical of the genre but its presentation, and the way that Lakeith Stanfield responses to the single piano strikes of a mysterious Daniel Craig seated silent behind him, are enough to twist Knives Out away from being too familiar.
What is also very evident from the start is just how much this cast is having with their characters. Craig clearly enjoys playing against type, even bringing an accent that is at first ridiculous and later still pretty ridiculous, but no one in the entire group brings greater relish than Chris Evans. Free from his own juggernaut franchise, Evans smiles his way through being the biggest jerk in a family of nothing but jerks. Great as he was in Endgame, it’s impossible not to imagine the sheer thrill Evans must have felt when tossing out a long string of light profanity, as though all the tension in years of having to keep himself in peak form for the part of Steve Rogers were being released at once. Yet as stacked as the cast is, de Armas is the standout, with entire scenes built around very little other than her expression as new pressures are added onto poor Marta’s shoulders. As the only character with an individual introduction, de Armas’s doe-eyed pleasantness is essential in keeping the viewer invested as the hypocrisy builds up around her. It’s a testament to her performance that the odd affliction of puking whenever a lie is told is immediately acceptable.
However, the real star of Knives Out is Johnson’s script. Beginning with the aforementioned interrogation scenes, every character, from the politically opposed cousins to the Thrombly-mystery reading state trooper, is written with such care that lines of dialog seem crafted for only that individual to say. It’s rare that characters form as fully or as quickly as they do through this combination of writing and performance. Even when speaking together on the same subject, the varying personalities in the scene focus on their own motives and frames of reference, their own secrets and desires. Dialog scenes contain so many little sprinkles of wit and humor that the mystery which ties it all together could be unnecessary, although the writing is tight enough that it is never forgotten. What’s more, while the usual coincidences and conveniences are needed to make sense when the mystery is finally solved, the actual events leading up to the murder check out. Johnson even manages to sneak in commentary on America’s current climate toward immigrants, including a running gag about Marta’s national origin, without it feeling heavy-handed or forced. The story may not be entirely unpredictable, but the best detective stories rarely are. That doesn’t make witnessing them any less enjoyable.
Sadly, it’s very difficult to discuss Knives Out in depth without revealing some of the many revelations which come early and often. In truth, it’s likely a film that benefits from knowing as little as possible, if only to keep the senses of mystery and fun intact. There’s nothing particularly spectacular about the film, at least not compared to bevy of supposed landmark movies we’re subjected to every year, but there is absolutely nothing egregious or disreputable, other than the fact that some people will still be angry at Rian Johnson for being a surprising filmmaker. Knives Out may not be remembered when it comes to award season, although it should be, and may not be on the list of highest grossing movies of the year, although it should be, but it is a wonderful example of how writing, direction, and performance come together to create a new and outstanding piece of work.
For those of us who can still appreciate original films with an obvious sense of fun, Knives Out is a well-earned break from the barrage of huge, albeit often very well-made, studio franchise releases. For those who prefer their films to be as familiar and formulaic as possible, adhering entirely to their own lists of rules and expectations, then I imagine even a little surprise might be too much, making filmmakers willing and able to do so all the more rare.