Those who had ever doubted of Rian Johnson’s geeky persona might not see Knives Out coming. The director has always been a classic cinema aficionado, whose cinematic inspiration spawned from adoring Annie Hall. His entire filmography only highlights how rich his references are and how stylish his filmmaking technique can be. Brick is an excellent hardboiled homage; The Brothers Bloom makes an ambitious callback to caper movies; Looper is an instant sci-fi classic, and only toxic Star Wars fans deny The Last Jedi as the finest movie in the canon since the original trilogy. Knives Out takes Johnson’s geekiness to the next level and you should be ready to call his new whodunit thriller a new instant classic.
Knives Out is a playful murder mystery through and through. Channeling his admiration for whodunit classics, Johnson stylizes his work as if it is taken from Agatha Christie’s or Ellery Queen’s books. While set in the modern era, the movie often ventures with elements that immediately remind us of classic Sydney Lumet’s murder mystery or Alfred Hitchcock’s. Dialogues are often whimsical and fanciful (this reminds me of how Johnson incorporated the use of language for storytelling in Brick) with clever wordplays and clue-laden convocations. Sometimes, I wonder if his descriptive words–ones used to stage the scene–are as whimsical as the dictions he often uses in the dialogues.
The story revolves around the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famous mystery writer. His sudden demise reunites his children, their spouses and their children–a self-made businesswoman, Linda Drysdale nee Thrombey (Jamie Lee Curtis) with her husband, Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) and their son, Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans); the widow of Neil Thrombley, a lifestyle guru, Joni (Toni Collette), and her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford); and Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s youngest son and publisher, with his wife, Donna (Riki Lindhome), and their teenage, white-supremacist son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell). The reunion is orchestrated by Detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), who runs an ongoing investigation on the case, along with State Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan, Johnson’s frequent collaborator in Brick and Looper). Joining the party is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s personal nurse who has a close relationship with him. The surprise guest is a flamboyant private investigator–some kind of modern Hercule Poirot with a strange accent and quirky behaviors named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig continuing his back-to-back peculiar characters after Logan Lucky).
You can immediately draw the formula once all the characters are completely unraveled. It’s a stylish homage classic Agatha Christie’s whodunits like Murder on the Orient Express, which mainly play out with rich characters’ motivations and red herrings. While the conflict that revolves around Harlan’s will might not be as relevant as it might have been with a period setting, it effectively moves the story forward as a trigger to set up a murder mystery story of the post-capitalism world. The mystery is rollicking–going on from a simple whodunit and, after some much-anticipated twist, shifting to the questions of motive.
While the guessing game is exhilarating, Johnson treats Knives Out ways more than that. He plays out with relevant social commentaries to spice up his perplexed story and cloud our judgment. It’s almost as if Johnson is making the story of Thrombey as a story of the US in particular. Explicitly, the story puts forward Johnson’s stance on immigrant polemics, dividing the family into two sides; meanwhile, the nurse in the family is an immigrant taking care of the founding father better than his own children. There’s one moment when Blanc mocks Thrombey’s children for “claiming” their father’s house as a legacy while his father only acquired it from some other rich person; the scene alone feels like a mockery for white supremacist with their irrational MAGA attitude.
Even with social commentaries, Knives Out is still a funny movie. It’s a tragicomedy of errors and the story is aware of it. Craig’s Benoit Blanc becomes the glue that sticks all the elements together even when he’s not always the main protagonist. Most of the time, it’s Blanc’s attitude and point of view which sets the tone of the whole movie. And yet, this whodunit is only as vibrant as its characters and Johnson has provided effective expositions which makes every single character unique and, somehow, likable. Enticing characterizations, carefully planted clues, well-staged mise en scene, and prolific exchange of dialogues blend into a highly exhilarating original whodunit we rarely saw in the recent era.
All in all, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a well-crafted tragicomedy of errors and an exquisite exercise of wordplay all at once. It’s safe to call it an instant classic.