When Rian Johnson directed The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of the internationally worshipped Star Wars franchise, he broadcasted himself as a director willing to reject the norms of cinematic-universe-frenzied Hollywood. The movie introduced a new idea about how a franchise film could be conceived, taking risks with character development and plot while still honoring the storied past films.
With Johnson’s latest film, Knives Out, which he also wrote, he reaffirms his ability to push the boundaries in modern cinema, offering a fresh take on a classic murder-mystery whodunnit. While the superb screenplay and precise editing maintains a speedy pace and, consequently, an entertaining plot, Johnson is also able to pack in some social commentary within the layers of the figuratively—and literally—rich story.
Within the first 10 minutes of Knives Out, the audience gets a clear idea of where the film might be going. Set in a gothic, lavish private estate filled with old books, expensive portraits, and lots of knives, a wealthy elderly man, Walter Thronby (Christopher Plummer), invites his family over for a dinner party. A presumed couple of cocktails and heated arguments later, everyone goes their separate ways … that is, until Thronby is found with a slit throat the next morning by his caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas).
The all-star cast playing the large family is introduced one by one, as state detectives Elliot and Wagner (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) try to crack the case, alongside the world renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
Walt (Michael Shannon), Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Richard (Don Johnson), and Joni (Toni Collete) each open up about their relationships with the late Walter. Many of these characters’ personal desires are revealed during their introductions. As the narrative weaves back and forth from the dinner party to present day, layers of exposition and character development are carefully disclosed. Viewers can try to piece the puzzle together as if it were a fun, real world adaptation of the Clue board game. In fact, as one character describes the maze of the Thronby mansion, “This place is practically a game of Clue.”
Each member of the cast is able to hold their respective weight. Stanfield, Plummer, Curtis, Johnson, and Shannon each shape and mold their characters in their own way. Collete sticks close to some common stereotypes but garners some of the biggest laughs, and Craig—with his odd southern twang—becomes more endearing as the mystery unfolds.
Even Captain America shows up, as Chris Evans plays a confident and witty Rampage, clearly distant and different from many of the others in his family. Ana de Armas might play the most likeable character in any murder mystery film ever. Although de Armas’ Marta is a caregiver, she is portrayed as a wholly loving and thoughtful person, with several characters coming to her to help them with various problems that arise.
What really makes Knives Out stand out is Johnson’s steady direction. He keeps it fun enough to be a mighty entertaining two hours. He sprinkles in contemporary jokes (ones about Instagram Influencers and Hamilton, to name a few) as the audience revels in the twists and turns that continue until the final moments of the film. While there is constant back and forth between characters and setting, there is never a sense that the movie is overstuffed.
The plot is as sharp as the weapon found by Thronby’s side, and Johnson definitely knows it.
He also uses his structured script to say something more. The night of the dinner party and death is specifically noted as Nov. 8, alluding to the day in 2016, when President Donald Trump was elected. Many characters explicitly note their political stance in conversation, especially in an uncomfortable yet scarily realistic discussion about immigration policy between several characters.
Themes about privilege and rightful ownership nearly emerge as the murder investigation unravels. In fact, Johnson’s commentary on America doesn’t really conclude satisfyingly until the very final shot of the film, again alluding to a contemporary joke that even casual Twitter users might understand. Knives Out does not just entertain, but also comments on where the future of the United States is headed.
Johnson is able to wrangle each of these elements into a well-acted, well-written, and well-directed film. From beginning to end, he not only hooks the audience with a story, but also slices through it by presenting the relevance behind it all.
Featured Image by Lionsgate