[CIFF Review] 'Knives Out': The Perfect Ensemble
Director Rian Johnson has had a pretty rough last few years dealing with the fallout of The Last Jedi. Unjustified angry fanboys have taken it upon themselves to spread the narrative that Johnson is an incapable director. But anyone who believes that will have to change their opinion after viewing his fifth feature, Knives Out.
Knives Out pays tribute to the Agatha Christie style whodunnit with a modern twist. When an upper class family gathers to celebrate the patriarch, Harlan Thrombey's (Christopher Plummer), 85th birthday, he ends up dead by an apparent suicide. This prompts a full scale investigation led by two state troopers (Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan) and a curious private detective (Daniel Craig). While "whodunnit?" is a fairly simple question, Johnson takes the genre and flips it on its head. In doing so, he manages to create something utterly unique, hilarious, and a showcase for all of the talent involved.
With an ensemble that features so many stars, one might expect it to be hard for anyone to stand out. But fortunately, this is not the case. Each actor in the film carves out a very specific persona that allows the audience to get to know each and every character. Among these characters are eldest daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her unlikeable husband (Don Johnson), as well as Harlan's eldest son Walt (Michael Shannon). And then there's Joni (Toni Collette) the faux-hippie Instagram influencer, a character that could have been irritating, but is played to perfection by Collette. Chris Evans plays the family miscreant, Ransom, taking a hard turn from his usual boy scout role as Captain America. Daniel Craig sports a strong southern drawl as private detective Benoit Blanc and never misses a beat. Nearly all of his lines are comedy gold, and Craig revels in it.
What may surprise people about Knives Out is that the story itself mostly revolves around Harlan's caretaker Maria, played by Ana de Armas. De Armas has made an impression in American film already with roles in Knock Knock and Blade Runner 2049, but this is the role that will make her just as much of a household name as the rest of this cast. She brings practicality and humbleness to the film, which helps the more exorbitant characters and plot details feel realistic. Maria is also the most likeable person in the movie, being more emotionally effected by Harlan's death than any of his immediate family.
De Armas's character also brings in another aspect of the film that may surprise people. The focus on Maria highlights a class distinction that is ever present in today's society. Despite how close she was to Harlan, the family never gives her the same respect he did due to her status. The fighting within the family also brings a Vice-like commentary on our current political climate. The young members of the family, phone obsessed mini conservative, Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and liberal arts major/activist Meg (Katherine Langford) show the polar opposite nature of politics today. Topics of immigration and the wealth gap are touched upon comedically without seeming like Johnson is on some kind of soapbox.
As previously mentioned, Johnson brings the whodunnit into the modern era in his own unique way. It's never overly complicated or filled with impossible easter eggs. It's smart enough to keep the audience guessing but fun enough to keep them entertained. The humor is incredibly smart and modern - "I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you". Through design, Knives Out pays tribute to the extravagance of films like Murder On The Orient Express (1974) and Clue (1985), by setting the film in a gorgeous older mansion and dressing the characters in modern clothing that is still indicative of the 1960s and 1970s.
Luckily for Johnson, it seems like KNIVES OUT will not be a very divisive film. Its humor and characters can be enjoyed by nearly anyone, and has already proven to be an immense crowd pleaser in the festival circuit. It is undoubtedly Johnson's best work to date, and one of the best films of 2019 so far.
Knives Out screened at the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival. It is scheduled to be released on November 27 in the United States and on November 29 in the United Kingdom.