NOC Review: Rian Johnson Slays with ‘Knives Out’

On the morning after his 85th birthday party, acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study, a cut carotid and blood splashed everywhere. His family, a classic Christiean cast of characters, are all waiting to find out the contents of his will. It’s with this well-known whodunit premise that Rian Johnson’s uproariously hilarious Knives Out begins.

First, we meet Marta (Ana de Armas), a young Latina who was in charge of Harlan’s care. A week later, she’s still shaken up from her boss’s untimely demise. She heads to the house where she’s greeted warmly by Thrombey’s family… and Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), who are there to investigate what has thus far appeared to be a suicide.

The detectives take each member of the family into the parlor to get their version of events. There’s Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s oldest daughter, who is a “self-made” mogul who yearned for her father’s attention. Her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), clearly hangs onto her coattails. Michael Shannon plays the ineffectual Walt, who runs Harlan’s publishing company, Blood and Wine, and can’t get him to approve film adaptations of his work. Joni (Toni Collette), one of the funniest characters, is a sort of hammed up Gwyneth Paltrow/Instagram influencer-type. (She runs a lifestyle brand called Phlam.) Her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), is frequently described as a “social justice warrior” student, who attends Smith College and her cousin Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is an alt-right internet troll. And last, but certainly not least, is the absent Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans), Linda and Richard’s jerk son, whose hair, jawline, and penchant for cozy sweaters are quite perfect.

Each character is soon confronted by private detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, whose Deep South accent falters at first, but rounds out as the movie progresses and he eases into the eccentric detective. Blanc, a famous PI, was hired anonymously and enticed to the case with a huge wad of cash. He skulks in the corner as the detectives question their not-suspects, dinging the piano whenever he suspects a lie. He’s quickly ready to proclaim Harlan’s supposed suicide foul play.

It’s hard to say much more about the characters without giving away key plot points, but in true mystery fashion, each person has a reason to want Harlan dead. He was the generator and owner of a huge fortune through his prolific writing and was about to cut each one off for various reasons. The cast is phenomenal. Everyone chews the scenery to perfection while keeping the audience rapt as we learn each of their motives and insecurities. The strength of the characters and actors keeps the story flowing, along with its tight plotting.

Ana de Armas was a standout for me. Marta quickly becomes Blanc’s “Watson,” due to her curious quirk: even just the thought of lying, causes her to vomit. Immediately. Every time. Her truthiness, however, quickly turns to tension, as Marta knows more than she’s letting on about what might have happened that night. The outsider to the family that hates each other, and secretly her too, Marta is the perfect entry character for the audience, who immediately wants to root for her. The premiere audience (at the Toronto International Film Festival) was audibly distraught whenever she was placed in a precarious situation. Her relationship with Harlan could have been played as creepy (and some of the family members reveal they suspected it to be), but it’s quite sweet. Harlan, who appears in flashbacks from before his death, is an austere father to his children, but a caring, playful grandfather-like figure to Marta. Their dynamic was well written and makes the unfolding of the plot all the more compelling.

For the nerd crowd, there are two delightful bonus characters. The first is Nana Thrombey, played to silent perfection by K Callen, a.k.a. Martha Kent from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. She says about 10 words but gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie. And Yoda himself, Frank Oz, reunites with Johnson after The Last Jedi. He briefly appears as the lawyer reading Harlan’s will.

Sadly, Lakeith Stanfield is underused and is the straight man to Craig’s overly philosophical private eye and his partner’s geeky enthusiasm for murder mysteries. But the movie isn’t short on racial and political commentary. Marta is positioned as a Latina loved as “part of the family” — to the point they offer to take care of her after Harlan’s death — but no one knows where she’s from. She’s praised as Harlan’s nurse and sincere friend, but also treated as a maid. And one of the biggest threats to her world in the aftermath of her boss’s death is the fact that her mother is undocumented. The movie is firmly set in our world, with a reference to red hat MAGA voters and “children in cages.” I’ll let you guess what side of the aisle most of this wealthy family stands on.

Whatever you do, go into this movie with as little information as possible. As a true mystery in the style of Christie and Hitchcock, Johnson throws twist after twist at the audience to throw them off the scent, but somehow, even after the final one, it’s not an overly complicated story. You’ll be visually spellbound from the first moment to the delicious last shot, looking for clues to the murder mystery at hand, but also Easter Eggs to time-honored mysteries (shout out to the character watching Murder, She Wrote). A thrilling and enthralling story, I give Knives Out top marks for spot-on casting, raucous humor, a familiar plot somehow made anew, brilliantly ramping up the tension every few sequences, memorable characters, and timely political messaging.

Knives Out premieres November 27 and is one to see before it gets spoiled for you.