Film Review: Rian Johnson’s Knives Out Modernizes the Whodunnit for 2019

on November 25, 2019, 12:00am

This review originally ran in September as part of our Fantastic Fest 2019 coverage.

The Pitch: Scaling back from the epic scope of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson returns to his crime-genre roots. But where his debut Brick was a modernized sendup of film noir, Knives Out riffs on the whodunnit.

The central crime involves the supposed suicide of celebrated mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). As his vulturous family navigates the aftermath of his death, it becomes clear that most of them could have had reasons for wanting him out of the picture. There’s eldest daughter and real-estate entrepreneur Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), and their black-sheep offspring, Ransom (Chris Evans); Harlan’s youngest, Walt (Michael Shannon), who publishes his novels and contends with his burgeoning alt-right son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell); new-age daughter in law Joni (Toni Collette) and her own progeny Meg (Katherine Langford); and finally, Harlan’s ancient mother, Great Nana Thrombey (K Callan).

Outside the immediate family circle, there’s also a string of characters who rise to prominence as the plot progresses, including two police officers—Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Rian Johnson’s go-to character actor Noah Segan)—trying to crack the case. They’re assisted by southern-gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose hiring origins remain mysterious. Johnson even un-Yodas Frank Oz for a brief yet memorable turn as a lawyer examining Harlan’s will.

But most importantly, Harlan’s nurse and confidant Marta (Ana de Armas) serves as the would-be protagonist, if there can truly be a protagonist in an ensemble so enormous.

Knives Out (Lionsgate)

Knives Out (Lionsgate)

Whodunnit, Howdunnit, Whydunnit: The cast list alone shows how challenging a byzantine murder-mystery like this can be, and for the most part, Johnson (Rian, not Don) proves to be an adept juggler of plotting. And is that really a surprise? Brick and Looper both had intricate narratives and mysterious deaths at the center of their stories, even if their tone was surprisingly darker than Knives Out—easily Johnson’s funniest film to date.

But where Brick‘s subversions of its respective genre lay mainly in aesthetic, Knives Out‘s magic lies in its inversion of structure. Without giving away too much, Johnson rewrites the whodunnit handbook by resolving many of the film’s supposed mysteries earlier than expected, freeing him up to take the form in new directions. By his own admission at the premiere’s post-show talkback at Fantastic Fest, he pivots from a whodunnit to a howdunnit to a whydunnit to something else that I won’t spoil here.

The solitary downside to the film is that the change in format also results in a change in location. When the film goes Hitchcockian in its second act, we’re suddenly away from Harlan’s puzzle-box mansion, and thus, most of the rogue’s gallery of memorable characters within. Although it’s necessary for the story and Johnson still sticks his landing with a gymnast’s jaw-dropping grace, the tension deflates just a tad when we’re not with the greater majority of the Thrombey family. Thinking purely in terms of entertainment, there’s a longing to spend as much time as possible with a cast so stacked, with Curtis’ no-bullshit Linda and Shannon’s impotently frazzled Walt being the standouts.

Knives Out (Lionsgate)

Knives Out (Lionsgate)

A Different Class of Thriller: Even with Johnson playing fast and loose with the whodunnit’s schematics, it would be easy for Knives Out to feel old-fashioned and stuffy—a retread of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, or any number of celebrated British authors. But he distinctly modernizes it with the character of Marta, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant. In addition to fueling her own motivation in dealing with Harlan’s death, Marta’s status and background present a subtle examination of cultural and socioeconomic prejudice within the upper class.

Despite insisting that they’ve always welcomed her, none of the living Thrombey clan can remember if she’s from Ecuador, Brazil, or Paraguay. They pointedly isolate her from certain goings-on in the family—until they realize she’s a financial asset who they might need to treat with a little more kindness. Although Johnson is careful not to commodify or exploit the character’s race, there’s no denying that Knives Out very much questions who deserves power in our world and the possibility of transforming toxic legacies in 2019. And that makes it different than any whodunnit that’s come before it.

The Verdict: Even if Knives Out loses a micro-dose of its claustrophobia and tension in the second act, it’s in the name of undoing what we’ve come to expect of past whodunnit stories. It’s all part of what makes the film such an effective, entertaining, and contemporary spin on what’s no longer a worn-out genre.

Where’s It Playing? Knives Out keeps audiences guessing in theaters everywhere on November 27th.