“It’s the type of movie they don’t make anymore” is a phrase repeated ad-nauseum in the circles of film discourse. Evidence of mass hysteria for the future of movie theaters, it’s a phrase usually used to describe romantic comedies, dramas about crime or divorce, or high concept thrillers. Although what it really means is: not a superhero or animated film.
As Knives Out begins, its intentions are clear – director Rian Johnson wanted to craft a classic murder mystery with shady, eccentric characters trapped in pulpy situations. The film’s story and characters are purposely ridiculous, bordering on satire, and relishes in its own absurdity. It’s a film not obsessed with deconstruction or satisfying the logic fiends in the cinephile demo. Johnson promises a fun, endlessly arresting murder mystery and he delivers. Simply, it’s the type of movie they don’t make anymore.
The film gets to the point quickly – wealthy murder-mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (awesome old rich guy last name) is dead by way of a slit throat. The autopsy says Harlan committed suicide. However, famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects that the man may have been murdered. With good reason; Harlan died the night of his birthday party, and he was seemingly on the verge of cutting off all his family members from his enormous wealth due to their incompetence, arrogance, or infidelity. There’s also the issue of who hired Blanc for this case and why, questions whose answers are not immediately clear. Craig appears accompanied with an at-first distracting southern accent, but soon settles into a controlled and measured performance. His take on the archetype of resourceful sleuth is a more comedic turn than the mystery thrillers and noir yarns of yesteryear, but his charm is illuminating and provides us with the perfect audience avatar for this implausible story.
Early on, the family is interrogated by officers Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper (Noah Segan). What is apparent quickly, and where the film draws most of its comedy, is how self-absorbed the Thrombey family is. What should be a somber affair comes off more like an episode of The Office as Harlan’s children exaggerate their accomplishments and their supposedly picturesque relationship with him. All the while obfuscating the truth for the aim of not necessarily to cover up a murder, but just to make themselves seem upstanding.
Rian Johnson is having plenty of fun mocking these high-class phonies, and his outstanding cast meets his fervor. Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent as Harlan’s daughter Linda, a stern but-one-mood-away-from-belligerent matriarch who is not nearly in control of things as she plays off. Toni Collette is sneakily one of the film’s MVPs as Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni; she strikes a balance of being totally delusional, but just nice and eccentric enough that you don’t hate her. And then there’s Don Johnson doing Don Johnson things as Linda’s slimy husband Richard.
But Knives Out doesn’t merely stop at stocking the story with eccentrics. Rather, the film coyly places the pathways to the mystery within unconventional tropes such as a senile grandmother, or a caretaker who has a very clever reason for why she can’t lie about what she saw the night of Harlan’s death. Then there’s Harlan’s grandson Hugh (Chris Evans), a brash jackass whose questionable motives cast a shadow of doubt on everything we think we know about what’s happening.
What is most surprising about this mystery may not even be the reveals, but how deftly Rian Johnson changes what the story is really about. We think we’re in for a simple story where no questions are answered until the end. But Johnson switches not only which characters we think we should be focusing on, but packs the script with meaningful critiques about the negatives of old money, the exploitation of familial bonds, and the attitude that we should be taken care of for life if our parents happened to be wealthy. By doing so, Johnson places a spotlight on the significance of love, kindness, and sincerity over the blood ties which we as a culture presume will automatically produce that love.
It isn’t common to find that level of sentimentality in a film that is so ludicrous and, on the surface, appears so cynical. The film expertly weaves it’s themes into a story that still delivers on all the promises of a traditional murder mystery. There are character actions that are revealed to have different motives when viewed from an alternate perspective. There are incredible leaps in deduction from detective Blanc, who early on appears to be terrible at his job until he gets the (of course) crucial clue. The film is over the top and knows it. At one point, there’s a hilarious reveal on how one character pronounced a certain word, and the film is right with the audience on how preposterous it all seems.
It’s that attitude that makes Knives Out one of the most enjoyable rides of the year. It’s not just about the destination, but how much we enjoy the journey to get there. From an insanely gifted cast to a rapturous script that affords not a single dull moment, Knives Out stands tall among the year’s best. But it is also a film that stands out as a dying breed with it’s own unique flavor. Rian Johnson reminds us why we talk so much about those movies they don’t make anymore.