Knives Out is great fun, and worth seeing more than once. Director Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi) proves once again that he is among the most vivid writers of mystery dialogue in film today. Fans of mystery and film noir may remember his first feature film Brick, and perhaps could reach some conclusions of the plot sooner than those unfamiliar with his pre-Star Wars work. The only disappointment to Knives Out is the absence of the Radiohead track of the same name. Boo.
Knives Out is a straight-up whodunit more along the lines of Clue or even classic Scooby Doo. It’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser, with all of the performer’s lines dialed up to eleven, but the real star is Ana De Armas as Marta Cabrera, the nurse of the deceased patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). He is discovered by one of his house staff, his throat slit, the morning after his birthday party.
Harlan lives alone in a secluded, many-storied upstate New York manor of creaky stairs, animal statues and other tchotchkes. It also has a couple secret doors. There’s a throne of knives. Oh, and did I mention that he writes mystery novels? The books and his publishing company are the source of his riches.
It turns out the party was relatively disappointing for his children, who all find out that they would in some way not get a piece of his fortune. Did his cutting his children off push one of them to murder? Would there be another?
About a week after his death, Harlan’s family and any other people he was close to are called to be interviewed by the police (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a private investigator (Daniel Craig). Harlan’s adult children are played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon. Don Johnson, Riki Lindhome, and Toni Collette are the children-in-law; Collette’s character is the ex-daughter-in-law to a deceased third son of Thrombey. Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, and Jaeden Martell round out the grandchildren. They are all exceedingly quirky, and their character names follow suit—Chris Evans’ character is named Ransom, for goodness’ sake.
They all fit the stereotypical spoiled rich brats, but they’re flavored for 2019. The granddaughter is a student at Smith College and her younger teenage cousin is an alt-right Nazi who is glued to his phone. The family debates immigration as Marta, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant, is in the room. For Marta, this may be her own Get Out.
That’s part of what makes this film special, and worth seeing, too. It is distinctly of its time, with Apple watches and iPhones aplenty. It openly presents class conflict between the expectations of the nouveau riche versus the reality of the working class. Knives Out isn’t just about rich white people who are sparring over cash and maybe killed a man; it’s also about recognizing the vital contributions of the undervalued worker, in spite of the chaotic family. Marta is the central character to the film, an emotional center in a void of emptiness, whose knowledge of the intricacies of the family dynamic and the manor is not only valued by the detectives on the case, it’s also something they can exploit.
Knives Out is funny and, surprisingly, family friendly. It’s like visual candy for fans of mysteries, packed with red herrings and sight gags. It also is a bit disgusting at times — one character has a physical response to lies that proves useful, but is very gross. Daniel Craig’s private investigator Blanc’s accent makes his character incredibly quotable. Even though the ensemble cast is packed with great actors, everyone has their moment to shine, but De Armas’ performance is the one we should all remember most fondly.