There’s some dumb bullshit meme online nowadays about how storytellers subverting audience expectations is a bad thing. It was borne out of writer-director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which reconstructed that series’ basic elements into something more modern, thoughtful and relevant while still honoring what makes that saga endure. The only expectations subverted were those that focused purely on plot and the comfort of the “known” — two traps that commercial storytelling contents itself with inhabiting more often than not.
Audiences should’ve seen The Last Jedi coming because Johnson’s entire career has been built on taking well-known approaches to genre entertainment and bending them into something fresh. Brick, his debut, is a high-school mystery written entirely in hardboiled-detective dialogue; Looper is a science-fiction time-travel tale with a twist; The Brothers Bloom, arguably his weakest effort, is his attempt at a con-men-with-heart drama. All this preamble sets the stage for a pretty bold statement, which is that Johnson’s newest feature Knives Out, his take on the Agatha Christie-style whodunnit murder-mystery, is another instant classic from the director — snugly existing within the conventions of the genre’s style while translating it into a modern context to make for a more emotionally insightful and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious filmgoing experience.
No reason to give you anything more than the very gist of it: Legendary mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his country mansion. There is reason to suspect foul play. Thrombey’s family is a cadre of selfish, entitled heirs and heiresses who have “built their own lives” via inheritance and cash from daddy. Each of them fit into archetypal murder-mystery roles.
There’s Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who made her living in high-price real estate and whose relationship with her father has its own secret language; Richard (Don Johnson), Linda’s husband with a dark secret; and Ransom (Chris Evans), their trust-fund black sheep son and such a raging asshole that he gives the former Captain America a chance to re-establish himself outside his old franchise.
Evans, Curtis, Don Johnson? Add to that Toni Collette as Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law Joni, a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle guru who needs cash to fund her business as well as tuition for her activist daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford). There’s also Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs his father’s publishing empire but wants to take it in a new direction, and Walt’s son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), a teenager with his eyes consistently glued to his phone as he dives deep into his own reality constructed by alt-right 4chan buddies.
Knives Out has the most outstanding ensemble of the year. It isn’t even a question. Beyond the family, we have the movie’s true lead in Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, an example of an actress who seems to have shown up everywhere finally getting her due). On the side of the law, Lakeith Stanfield is the lead police lieutenant on the case. Stanfield is an ever-dependable presence on the independent scene and once again does standout work as the straight man to Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who represents Johnson’s take on the famous investigator Hercule Poirot. Craig is out in full force here, further developing his Southern accent minted in 2017’s Logan Lucky and playing what could become a definitive recurring role in his career, box office willing.
Not a single performer is wasted here. They’re all dialed up to 11, seemingly having the time of their lives.
In addition to crafting so many vivid suspects and casting an all-star ensemble to play them, Johnson’s immaculate script infuses each of them with beliefs and hangups recognizable in today’s world. This isn’t an instance where a mystery film is set in the 1970s or 1980s to play off tropes or limit the amount of information available to characters via modern technology to make the story easier to tell. Neither is it one to shy away from contemporary conversations about racism and economic injustice. It’s a murder mystery for 2019 that lets none of its characters off the hook. One gag, in particular, only gets funnier and more frustrating the more often it occurs. To state it would spoil it, which is one of the most difficult aspects of reviewing this film. It’s all great, and even better as a surprise.
Knives Out uses all of these elements to ultimately capture a thoughtful moral dimension. Like Johnson’s other films, it grounds itself in the familiar to first engage the audience and then explore that space. Even knowing Johnson’s other work, it manages to subvert expectations. There are few scripts this year nearly as clever as Knives Out, and even fewer that are as entertaining.
This is the essence of smart filmmaking. The game is afoot.