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Knives Out

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As further evidence that he is one of the most agile and versatile writer-directors currently working, Rian Johnson has jumped genres once again in following up Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), his controversial entry in the post-George Lucas space saga, with Knives Out, a deliriously engrossing murder-mystery that wears its old-fashioned bona fides on its stylish, highly self-aware sleeve. Throughout his films Johnson has displayed a fascination with, and a real knack for, writing dialogue that harkens back to older cinematic forms, but is thoroughly embedded in the here and now’”his audacious debut, Brick (2005), was essentially a ’40s-era gumshoe mystery with period-specific dialogue and plot mechanics that took place in a modern day California high school’”and he does something very similar here, giving us an Agatha Christie-esque whodunit in which a wealthy patriarch’s apparent suicide is called in to question and the greedy members of his extended family are all suspects because they all have something to gain from his death.

That set-up and the film’s setting, an enormous, isolated mansion with secret doors, hidden rooms, and cavernous ornate spaces, is pure Christie, but the characters are pure Johnson, an amusing rogue’s gallery of spoiled adult children whose livelihoods hinge on Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), their multi-millionaire mystery-writer father who is found the morning after his 85th birthday party with his neck slit, apparently by his own hand. Each of his children and their spouses and children are in some way financially dependent on Harlan. His oldest daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), rely on his money to fuel their real estate business, and their son Random (Chris Evans) needs it to fund his posh playboy lifestyle. Harlan’s oldest son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs his publishing empire, and his widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) needs it for both her lifestyle business and to send her daughter to college. All of these characters, along with Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), are at his house for his birthday party, the night he supposedly commits suicide, and, as we gradually learn, each character has a driving motivation to see the old man dead.

Much of what we learn is through the questioning of the family members by local police detective Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a drawling Southern detective who has been mysteriously hired by an anonymous party to conduct his own investigation. Each character spins their answers in ways that benefit them, and Johnson amusingly frames them in front of an enormous circular art piece composed entirely of knives pointed toward the center of the circle. Because they tell different and partial versions of the events that transpired the night before, Johnson allows us only bits and pieces at a time, sometimes leading us to one conclusion and then suddenly revealing a hitherto unheard line of dialogue or otherwise unseen action that forces us to re-evaluate what we thought we know.

And then, about midway through the film, he does something incredibly daring, surprising, and altogether wonderful: He reveals who the murderer is. Just as Hitchcock did in Vertigo (1958), he gives us the solution to the film’s mystery (or, should I say, one of the film’s mysteries) long before the film is over, which is a calculated gambit that forces us to experience a familiar genre from an entirely different angle. Johnson’s daring here is typical of his work; he did something similar in Looper (2012), his time-travelling sci-fi thriller that also turned into an unexpectedly different movie about halfway through. But, the manner in which he turns the tables here flips everything upside down, as we must quickly shift from wondering who did it to wondering if the person who did it will get away with it (in an additional twist, the culprit ends up working right alongside Benoit Blanc, who, despite being unaware of how close he is to the suspect, is a highly capable and intuitive sleuth).

Of course, that is hardly all there is, and Johnson piles on twist after turn right up until the final moments; after a while, you give up trying to guess where it’s going and just cruise along for the ride. It helps that Johnson has made the film both enthralling and incredibly funny; he stages familial conflict in a way that is wonderfully familiar even though it is transpiring among a bunch of self-absorbed one-percenters. Johnson is clearly determined to interweave as many current events as possible, and he defines many of his characters according to their political perspectives. No one ever mentions that name ‘œTrump,’ but the current administration’s policies, particularly involving immigration, provide plenty of grist for heated family discussion (Walt’s teenage son Jacob, played by Jaeden Martell, who is always on his phone, is at one point described as an ‘œalt-right troll’ and a ‘œfascist’). The fact that Johnson works these issues so seamlessly into the dialogue, making it both funny and revealing, is only one of the many tricks he pulls. The whole film is presented with such confidence, such stylish aplomb, such assurance that its intrigue and its humor will stick every landing that you can’t help but be drawn into its highly insular world. He isn’t shy about laying it on thick’”from Craig’s Shelby Foote-inspired drawl, to Evans’s arrogant mugging, to Nathan Johnson’s thunderous musical score, to a character who can’t help but vomit why lying’”and it all works. Not many movies can get away with a character saying, without a hint of irony, ‘œI suspect foul play,’ but this one does.

It’s not all just mystery machinations, though. Johnson certainly has some things to say about the rich and how they live in the Trump era, and a large part of the film’s success rests on his ability to root the mystery (and later suspense) in the assumed privilege of its navel-gazing WASP protagonists, some of whom are more honest about their advantages than others (Joni, in particular, is the kind of snide, insufferable armchair liberal who decries children being put in cages but clearly relishes her own material status). The members of the Drysdale family are so sure that they deserve their one-percenter status, despite none of them having earned it for themselves, that it comes as a genuine shock to them when that status is threatened. Greed is one of the oldest subjects for drama, but Johnson finds new and interesting and entertaining ways to remind us of just how ugly it can be.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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