They do make them like they used to.
KNIVES OUT is one of the best films of the year from an auteur at the top of his game, who has delivered nothing but quality with every new film they make.
I’m biased, of course, as director Rian Johnson is one of my favorite filmmakers working today and I’ve been singing his praises since he burst on the scene with BRICK. But when you find someone whose work just speaks to you on every level and makes you sincerely happy that it exists, that’s just what you gotta do.
The film begins like any good murder mystery – with the death of a rich patriarch, found the morning following their birthday party, where his entire family of misfits and MAGA-chumps have gathered to spend the night. He lives on the highest floor of a beautiful, elaborately Rube Goldbergian house, complete with hidden entrances and askew doorways. Nobody knows what happened, but all the evidence points to suicide. It’s not long before the vultures descend upon the inheritance, with the timid caretaker Marta (the wonderful Ana De Armas in a career best) left to fend for herself amidst the squabbling boomers. Luckily the police have brought along a secret weapon; Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, utilizing the same dopey charm he perfected in LOGAN LUCKY), who suspects foul play.
While by all intents and purposes KNIVES OUT is as traditional as it gets, it also takes detours into hilarious satire and the kind of genre deconstructions that Rian Johnson has so expertly utilized in his career. Benoit, for example, thrives on his image as a mysterious southern detective, oozing a kind of ‘Hercule Poirot south of the Mason-Dixon line’ charm from every pore, but we’re constantly reminded that while he certainly sells the fantasy, to his colleagues, he’s still Benny. Smart and brilliant, sure, but man does he go on. At the same time, it must be said, Benoit never is treated like a cheap gag, and his triumphs and failures are just as compelling to watch as a perfectly played straight thriller. Johnson’s script is so good and so eloquently put together, that no matter how you approach the film, each angle is just as rewarding as the other.
The family themselves are a collection of CLUE-style caricatures, modernized in a way that is not just recognizable, but eminently hateable as well. Jaeden Martell especially wrings out tons of laughs from cosplaying Ben Shapiro, and Toni Collette (always a treasure in everything she’s in) is hysterical as the social media hungry Gwyneth Paltrow-type socialite. Nobody does the angry turn on their heels quite like her, and here she gets to imprint brand new grooves everywhere she goes.
KNIVES OUT feels like a natural progression of Johnson’s career. Each one of his films to date has dealt heavily with themes of personal empowerment, myth-making, and the power placed on objects both tangible and imagined. In BROTHERS BLOOM, the world literally became the story that the characters told themselves it would, at the cost of the freedom of living a life they actually experienced rather than fabricated. In BRICK, the disillusioned youths spoke with lingo torn from the pages of Dashiell Hammett to express their removal from normality. In one of the great scenes from the film, Johnson reminds us that these are still just kids at play, when the protagonist and antagonist meet, and the antagonists mom dotes on them by serving orange juice. By that point, language had become such a powerful weapon that our illusion of this dark underworld was total.
In KNIVES OUT, the tale is spun over and over again by those incapable of experiencing change, and Johnson crafts a loud and clear message of hate speech and the normalization of racism in our culture deep into the veins of his genre film. As the past dies, the disenfranchised and the young are left at the mercy of a world born and bred in a bubble, where language itself falls victim to being redefined on a whim. In one scene, a character complains about how their heritage is being trampled on, citing achievements accomplished by everyone else but themselves, and the concept is just as elusive as the idea of who is or isn’t an American.
Watching KNIVES OUT feels like playing a game with a warm and challenging host, who is not gonna cut you any slack with their riddles, but is always making sure that everyone is having fun figuring them out. As you sort through the clues and the host spins his tale, a dialog between viewer and storyteller is formed in the style of Hitchcock, where Johnson dangles threads before your face, each leading to a different potential conclusion. And when you guess wrong, as you’re bound to do, he always makes it feel like a reward just to hear where that potential story could have gone.