KNIVES OUT
(***½)

"...balances moral conscience and black humor-within the constraints of the murder mystery genre"

Razor Sharp Knives

(120619) Rian Johnson is well-acquainted with the scum and villainy of the internet, which came after him and his 2017 film “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” for daring to toy with the traditional assumptions of a Star Wars film. Johnson, who grew up in Denver, takes a veiled shot at them in his new movie, “Knives Out,” by incorporating a young, phone-tethered boy named Jacob. The dialogue-light character embodies the trolls who have tried to take down Johnson and anyone else who resists fan-servicing edicts in today’s toxic social media climate.

But “Knives Out,” isn’t some score-settling potshot delivered under the guise of entertainment. Jacob is but one of a dozen-plus characters who dance on and off screen in this dazzling murder mystery, which Johnson has described as an homage to British novelist Agatha Christie. The canny mix of crime-fiction tropes, contemporary color and Johnson’s own, well-demonstrated mischievousness makes “Knives Out” the rare film at the holiday box office: one that will please both cinephiles and general audiences, sarcastic teens and earnest grandparents.

Even more heartening, and attractive, is the way Johnson’s love of the genre jumps off the screen in nearly every scene. “Knives Out” may seem more earthbound than many of his acrobatic scripts — think “Looper,” “Brick” and even “Jedi” — but it similarly subverts expectations at every turn. How fitting for a classic whodunit with a progressive heart.

A chilly, bass-heavy musical cue accompanies the first shot of the Thrombey estate, sucking us into the world of low-angle antiques, wood-grained walls and sumptuous leather chairs that threaten to swallow their inhabitants. There, the Thrombey clan, led by best-selling author and patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), gathers to celebrate Harlan on his 85th birthday.

The next morning, Harlan is found dead by a housekeeper. Given the family’s riches and the squabbling hinted at early on, a police investigation is a given. Motives fly as interviews overlap and twist back into the events of the fateful night, with a deft mix of flashbacks and present-day scenes that build irresistible mazes from a handful of playing cards. In rapid succession we meet proud daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her shifty husband, Richard (Don Johnson), as well as their smug, aloof son, Ransom (Chris Evans). They’re interviewed by Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and his partner, Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan).

But who’s this figure hovering behind them? It’s Daniel Craig, who for the past few years has played cinema’s humorless James Bond. Here he gets to chew the scenery as Benoit Blanc, a dubiously accented detective who was hired to assist the investigation. It’s a role Craig clearly relishes, and his bemused skepticism quickly becomes one of the film’s richest delights.

Motives pile up as we squeeze through the family’s tangled alliances. Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) is a dim lifestyle guru and Instagram influencer for whom Johnson’s script reserves a surprising amount of empathy. Walter Thrombey (Michael Shannon) is the moody and jealous youngest son, darkened by the shadow of his father. Meg Thrombey (Katherine Langford) is the daughter of Joni, and the liberal-activist foil to aforementioned alt-right troll Jacob. Ana de Armas, appreciably glammed-down from her usual beauty, plays Harlan’s personal nurse Marta Cabrera. Given the way she’s introduced (in a domestic situation apart from her job) viewers will know there’s more to her than first meets the eye.

Like “The Last Jedi,” much of the fun of “Knives Out” is sorting through small, seemingly random pieces of a puzzle that we’re sure we recognize. It’s only later that we realize the image is stranger than we imagined. Even when we know Johnson’s witty, efficient script is manipulating us, it’s difficult to say how or why until late in the film.

It’s hard to overstate how rare this is in a star-studded movie that isn’t also a Disney musical or bald stab at Oscar dominance. “Knives Out” may well get some love at next year’s Academy Awards, but it lacks the dramatic (if prestigious) desperation with which many Oscar hopefuls tend to drip.

Johnson’s plot is worthy of the Christie references. His dialogue is humanistic but viciously funny, and his characters well-drawn, with thick lines that afford them instantly recognizable silhouettes. The unabashed contrivances — conveniently located escape routes introduced midway through the movie — nonetheless snap neatly into place.

But an audience can’t be strung along for two-plus hours on that alone. Without exceptions, Johnson’s sprawling cast comes together like an ornery ballet troupe, posing, leaping and flailing when the choreography calls for it, each performance calibrated to complement the other. Craig, too, is funnier than he’s been in years (or perhaps ever). And Cuban-born Armas, who may not be as well known to American audiences (she played the holographic muse Joi in “Blade Runner 2049”), is the breakout of the film, walking a near-invisible emotional tightrope with thrilling ease.

Even when the film occasionally drags, as it does with some third-act speechifying, each beat feels organic, each emotional investment earned. Further describing the plot would cull some of the surprises, and there are many. “Knives Out” deserves to be explored as a world of it own, as Johnson balances moral conscience and black humor expertly within the constraints of the murder-mystery genre. Unlike the Thrombey clan, a love of what came before allows Johnson to delight us with a shiny new version of it. Scraping away at the surface with a pocket knife, “Maltese Falcon”-style, only reveals the solid craftsmanship underneath.
 

Directed & Written by:    Rian Johnson
Starring:    Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas
Released:   112719
Length:   130 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material

KNIVES OUT ©  2019 Lionsgate
Review © 2019 Alternate Reality, Inc.