Rian Johnson loves a good mystery. And why not? There’s a tingly jolt of pleasure from watching a good one. There’s just something about watching an ingeniously clever genius sleuth unravel a knotty tangle of murderous deception, and there’s a certain frisspon of satisfaction when we watch our audience stand-in Jessica Fletchers and Hercule Poirots solve their latest case of death most foul. A good mystery allows us to imagine ourselves as those mad-genius observers of human nature, always coolly one-step ahead and able to deduce the real culprit out of a mountain of lies; it’s comforting puzzlebox fun.
Which is to say that Johnson’s KNIVES OUT has the same spirit of inventively sharp-eyed intellectual stimulation. It’s not exactly a movie that amounts to much — it’s a larkish diversion, plopping us down into the middle of an acidicly amusing multi-generational who’s who of finely calibrated actors as they snipe at each other in the midst of a homicide investigation. Oh, but what a diversion it is! KNIVES OUT is a trifle, but it’s an amusingly droll and engagingly quick-witted trifle.
Someone has killed Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the just-turned-85 mystery novelist and patriarch to a groveling clan of well-to-do New England spoiled brats. Or did they? Thrombey’s death has been ruled a suicide, the novelist taking his own life. But then why did someone hire the famed private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, amusing himself mightily with a plummy Southern accent) to investigate the murder of the best-selling writer?
To tell you the answer would be a crime in itself. I will tell you this: KNIVES OUT is not the movie you were expecting. It would behoove me to dance around spoiler territory, so I am only going to make a minor one here: early on, Johnson makes a reveal that would be the third act of most other mystery films. That allows him to play off the playful, backbiting spirit of the large cast he’s assembled, while also indulging in a series of other, more elaborate twists and turns in the home stretch. Johnson’s mystery isn’t exactly a rich and dexterous one — an observant viewer will probably crack it early on — but it allows the director to engage in a series of wryly funny tête-à-têtes between its stacked cast.
And what a cast! The real pleasure of KNIVES OUT comes not in solving the mystery, which is a fairly simple-minded one as far as these things go, but in watching these actors chew into the scenery afforded to them. Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette are the scions angling to get a bit of the Thormbey fortune (the latter a gravely mystical-minded GOOP wannabe capitalist hippie princess); Don Johnson is Curtis’s slithery husband; and Chris Evans is Curtis’s and Johnson’s ne’er-do-well son, trading in his Captain America iron-jawed earnestness to amusingly play a smugly sneer country-club hipster prick (and we haven’t even gotten to Lakeith Stanfield and Johnson regular Noah Segan as the cops helping Blanc on the case.)
But none of them are the real star of KNIVES OUT — and neither is Craig, who relishes getting to play this bourbon-soaked Poirot manque, but who is treated, by Johnson, as kind of a slickly savant-doofus parody of the usual mystery hero clue-solver. No, the real star of KNIVES OUT, and the beating heart of it, is the revelatory performance of Ana De Armas as Marta, Thrombey’s sweetly devoted nurse. De Armas is a familiar performer — she was Ryan Gosling’s hologram lover in BLADE RUNNER 2049 — but she’s often been stuck in stock sultry sexpot subordinate roles. Here, though, we get to see what De Armas can do and she runs with it. There’s an amusing running (literal) gag with her character — Marta can’t tell a lie without upchucking — but it’s not just a one-note joke; it grounds her character in a palpable desperate innocence. What’s your part in a crime investigation if you can’t lie? Marta is a good person, but not a boringly beatific cliche of one. De Armas becomes the film’s central figure of audience identification, and you can’t take your eyes from her whenever she’s on screen. With KNIVES OUT, Ana De Armas becomes a star.
As for the movie itself? It’s a pungently clever little romp, if not much more. It’s certainly a finely crafted romp, what with its autumnal New England atmosphere. But is it worth more than one revisit? I’m not sure about that. Johnson has built a fairly rickety mystery for his film to stand on; he spends more time spreading his love for the children of Agatha Christie than in knitting a tightly-plotted mystery of his own. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Johnson’s movie is a gratifyingly entertaining riff on the mystery genre. He indulges in some of-the-moment cheeky commentary on modern life, and he lets his cast let loose on each other in satisfyingly enjoyable ways. KNIVES OUT is a winsomely frothy whodunit concoction, no more and no less. Though give it this: it shows the birth of at least one new star.
Tags: Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Christoper Plummer, Daniel Craig, Don Johnson, Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2019, Jaeden Martell, jamie lee curtis, Katherine Langford, LaKeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Mystery, Noah Segan, Rian Johnson, Riki Lindholme, Toni Collette