As “Knives Out” begins, the various members of the Thrombey family are being interviewed by police officers about the recent death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Such interviews are being treated as just a formality given that Harlan Thrombey died by way of suicide, but listening in on these interviews is a man who believes there is something bigger going on here with this elderly mystery book author’s demise. That man is none other than Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), an ultra-Southern individual who suspects murder could be behind the death of Harlan Thrombey. Who could be behind it? Well, there’s no shortage of suspects within the Thrombey family, his descendants are quite the eclectic group of people each with their own ax to grind.
In these opening sequences, the brilliance of Rian Johnson’s screenplay for “Knives Out” is apparent in how he deftly establishes the tone of the forthcoming movie as well as the personalities for the various distinct characters all while playing like an easygoing comedic romp. You never feel Johnson straining to establish a whole bunch of key story elements, they just emerge as organic extensions of entertaining dialogue exchanges. One way such effortless introductions manifest is how individual dynamics between the various members of the Thrombey clan are shown primarily through “Knives Out” doing a homage to “Rashomon.” By that, I mean we see the events of the prior night’s big family party (the last place Harlan was seen alive) constantly shifting depending on who is telling the story.
Through this, we get a great sense of who characters like Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) or Gwenyth Paltrow-esque figure Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) are and what exactly they issue with Harlan Thrombey was. We also get to see a whole bunch of entertaining scenes, like Joni gushing in voice-over how close she is to the Thrombey family while on-screen footage showing her at the party being oblivious to Linda totally ignoring Joni. This hysterical and well-written opening also allows Benoit Blanc to make an appropriately grandiose entrance. The detective that’ll be so integral to the subsequent story just sits in the background of these interviews totally silent save for the occasional tinkling of a piano key before he makes his presence known only when he’s good and ready.
“Knives Out” is not short on over-the-top characters but Benoit Blanc is an especially stylized figure with his thick Southern accent, confident attitude and his elaborate tongue-twister metaphors seemingly penned by Princess Carolyn. The way “Knives Out” is able to establish the idiosyncratic personality of Benoit Blanc and the various Thrombey figures in such a delightful fashion impressively establish the wonderfully enjoyable movie that’s yet to come. Just like writer/director Rian Johnson did with neo-noirs, capers, time travel tales and Star Wars movie in his prior feature film works, Johnson takes all the familiar trappings of a well-known genre (in the case of “Knives Out,” a murder mystery movie) and injects his own personality and style into it to create something totally fresh and delightful.
Part of the way “Knives Out” separates itself from typical murder mysteries is in how it creates thoughtful social commentary in the dissonance between the Thrombey family members and the main character of “Knives Out,” Harlan’s caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). Marta is the recognizably human person getting prominent screentime in “Knives Out” and her status as a normal human being is all the more emphasized with how much she contrasts with the Thrombey’s, who sometimes come across as figures you’d find in a game of Guess Who? That contrast plays heavily into a story that ends up using the heightened nature of the Thrombey’s to comment on the detached nature of the ultra-wealthy class as well as modern-day American politics in a shockingly successful way.
But even divorcing that social commentary from the story, “Knives Out” still stands out as its own unique creation simply thanks to its own one-of-a-kind sense of fun. Sometimes, you can dissect why a movies good in intricate ways, and sometimes, you get something as excellent as “Knives Out” that can attribute much of its success to being flat-out fun to watch. Each member of the ensemble cast sinks their teeth into their respective roles and create some delightful creations in the process, it’s impressive how there isn’t a dud to be found in a cast this dense. Ana de Armas does star-making work in the lead role, she has such a captivatingly empathetic quality to her whenever she’s on-screen.
She communicates all of the complex matters Marta is grappling with even when she’s just silently sitting there. Her gift for silently potent performances makes her a great contrast with Benoit Blanc, a character that allows Daniel Craig to make poetry out of elaborate analogies and dense dialogue. Needless to say, Craig’s an absolute riot in this role and between this and his work as Joe Bang in “Logan Lucky,” I think Craig’s niche as an actor is playing over-the-top Southerners with craftiness to spare. Just as pronounced and exceptional as the performance in “Knives Out” is the gorgeous looking production design and costumes that just seem to be reveling in the chance to inhabit visual aesthetics associated with mystery thrillers. Really, everything on-screen in “Knives Out” is having almost as good of a time as audience members actually watching the movie.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.