Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an engine of perfect entertainment. From the opening moments, we are swept into the story and characters, and it feels completely confident and effortless. It’s old fashioned in all the best ways, but also has modern sensibilities and themes that give the film weight and substance. The murder mystery, as a genre, isn’t exactly dead — 2017 gave us Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, and a Clue remake is currently moving forward — but it has been quite some time since any have made a serious impact. There is a decent chance that will change when Knives Out is released into theaters in Thanksgiving, and people shouldn’t be surprised if the movie gets serious awards consideration.
Johnson’s script is the rocket fuel that drives this engine. It’s a marvel, surprising us at every turn yet never cheats or misdirects. Johnson expertly lays all the pieces out on the board within the film’s first half hour, but the fun is in watching Johnson move them.On the morning after his 85th birthday, mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by the housekeeper, in what appears to be a suicide. But while Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) investigate, world-renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is convinced that they do not have the whole story. Everyone in the Thrombey family has a motive – his son Walt (Michael Shannon), his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), married to daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and father to Jacob (Jaeden Martell), the young prodigal grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), even widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) with daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). But something sinister did happen that night, and Blanc focuses his investigation on Harlan’s personal nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who has secrets of her own.
Once all the pieces are in play, Johnson takes great pleasure in moving them in ways that we cannot predict. He is aided in that by all the wonderful performances of the cast, who all step up to the challenge. I particularly had a fondness for Don Johnson’s Richard, but everyone shines and does the work required to propel the story forward. While Knives Out takes direct inspiration from the stories of Agatha Christie and films like Sleuth and Deathtrap, Rian Johnson also manages to inject some social commentary, and he does it in a very sly but humorous way. Knives Out is a film of the times in that regard, and gives the film a morality that strikes a chord. While it may be easy for someone to demonstrate their politics, when push comes to shove, people reveal their true nature, and I loved how Knives Out makes examples of each of these characters.
And then there is the work of one Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, a Southern gentleman whose tenacity and drive for the truth keeps poking and prodding even while everyone else is certain about what happened. This is Craig’s best performance – deeply funny, but strikingly intelligent, and even when the truth eludes him, Blanc has a way of disarming those around him to get them to tell him information that they didn’t intend. Even a well-told lie reveals something of the truth to Blanc, and how Blanc reacts to each new piece of information makes the audience suspect that Blanc isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. But Blanc is playing the game as well. As Craig moves past James Bond and into the later stages of his career, I hope that he takes on more roles like Benoit Blanc and Logan Lucky‘s Joe Bang. I bet that Craig would just shred in a new Coen Brothers movie. I am very excited to see what Craig does next, and in a year full of strong performances, I would be happy if Daniel Craig got some awards recognition for his work here.
I still feel that Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the finest in that Saga (and not to get into a debate about it, but I’ve been a Star Wars fan since the beginning). It doesn’t treat the source material as holy writ, which is why many in that fandom felt let down by it. But holy writ never changes. It is immutable. And as a filmmaker, Rian Johnson has no interest in telling stories like that. As The Last Jedi challenges us to understand just what makes a Star Wars film a Star Wars film, Johnson similarly does with the murder mystery genre. He plays with the tropes, he subverts expectations, and he has a deep knowledge of film and storytelling that he brings with him that informs the films that he makes. Knives Out is no different in that regard – he obviously has a deep love for the genre and he shows that love by putting the genre to the test to see what happens. He’s mischievous but purposeful, and unafraid. Every film that Rian Johnson has made so far is an example of that – that for storytelling to move forward in the 21st century, storytellers can use these genres to tell relevant, resonant tales, full of intelligence, humor, and heart.
But there are many factors that play into why Knives Out is one of the best films of the year – the incredible set design by David Crank, the playful cinematography of Steve Yedlin, the brilliant editing of Bob Ducsay, and the terrific score by Nathan Johnson. I love the rich tapestry of the Thrombey House, which feels real yet also elevated to the genre. There is no wasted space in Knives Out, but we still get a lot of room for great character interaction and mood. It is no accident that Knives Out is released on Thanksgiving; as families gather to a movie, perhaps the discord that feels so prevalent today among all of us can give way to some common ground of understanding. Or, perhaps, they can feel united in joy at a story so thrillingly well told. Knives Out breathes new life and vigor into the murder mystery genre, and will be beloved by audiences for years to come.