Knives Out: Rian Johnson Cashes His Blank Check in Ensemble Gold

A family is as sick as its secrets. The Thrombeys are a very sick family. They are lead by patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a writer of great mysteries whose final mystery will be that of his own death. His funeral, as any mystery writer could only hope for, is an intriguing whodunit where all of his loved ones are likely suspects. His writing has funded a great mansion and a high-end lifestyle for all of his relatives. They have come to celebrate his birthday – and subsequently, his death – in Rian Johnson’s hotly-anticipated follow up to his divisive Star Wars film. The director utilizes a supremely starry cast to aide his ultimate goal, of creating the great whodunit mystery of our time.

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Knives Out. Dir. Rian Johnson.

What’s profoundly effective about Knives Out is its social awareness. Mr. Johnson has made a cutting statement of intent against his critics. He has conveyed them as disposable privileged teenagers with more immersion in the fake construct of the internet, than engagement in real life. Handily, he has made an exceedingly progressive film which will enrage them and create a fervor of support in his followers. Among an astoundingly well-rounded cast, Ana de Armas takes center stage as a maid, the daughter of immigrants. She is closest to the patriarch and has an honest heart, leading to great suspicion amongst the family, as she spent some of the final moments with Harlan. She has always required a center stage act and gets to shine brightly here, proving her intrinsic talent with great empathy and understanding of her craft.

An absurdly-accented Daniel Craig plays Benoit Blanc, a detective in the classical tradition, modulating between “Kentucky-fried” charm and an endearing understanding of how to share the stage with his cast. It is Craig’s and Armas’ movie and they steal all their scenes and especially radiate must-see energy together. They are also surrounded by great talents, some of the best in the game. Of particular note are Jamie Lee Curtis (confident and in-charge), Toni Collete (tanned to a leathery crisp and out of her mind), Mark Hamill (clearly loving every minute working with Johnson, must become a regular of his), and Chris Evans (Captain America would not prepare you for his very funny and interesting turn). That’s scratching the surface of a who’s who whodunit that works off the strength of stellar performances.

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Knives Out. Dir. Rian Johnson.

Johnson’s reliable DP, Steve Yedlin, and editor Bob Ducsay do wonders for the film. The mansion they work with makes for the impressive set dressing with great minute details, relics of a life well-lived. The initial interviews of the family are set in a room with all his trinkets. The subject sets before a giant array of knives, a rich man’s sport collecting weaponry for display. There’s a grand piano, which Daniel Craig chimes on as the interviewees’ talk, signaling clues and lies. Lakeith Stanfield drives the objective interviewing, while Craig exploits the truth of the matter, in the gritty details. The cuts are just perfect. Handling such a great ensemble is an incredible task on its own. Ducsay makes it work seamlessly for Johnson, interweaving subjects and timeframes, lending invisibility to his process, so you know it works. And after, as they congregate and he follows the action, the way people disperse, the editing and camera work together to cue significant objects of interest and create an absolute immersion into the mystery of the story.

After as strong an opening as any whodunit, Knives Out loses a step in its second act. It tries to develop the mystery beyond its premise and slightly stretches the credulity of the case, making some outcomes obvious, as we experience them with the characters. Some clever writing work refigures these events later, finding a spin that matters for the story, but only after an act that strains the pacing out and leaves a sag in the middle of an otherwise tight yarn.

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Knives Out. Dir. Rian Johnson.

Knives Out functions as the rightful successor of its Clue (1985) progenitor. When it stays in the mystery and with all of the suspects, it holds a candle to any whodunit before. Strong acting from all sides, only let down by a couple funny accents, allow a great deal of suspense and justly appreciable comedy. A great showcase for Ana de Armas, whose career is primed to explode right now. Knives Out is a hell of a good mystery. Getting to the center of it and spending time with this cast is an absolute delight. Rian Johnson proves his merits once again in the passion project. Perhaps his greatest takedown of past critics is his great success with Knives Out.

8/10

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