Knives Out Review: Rian Johnson’s Wickedly Sharp Murder Mystery Puts a Timely Twist on a Bygone Genre [TIFF 2019]

The twenty-first century hasn’t been too kind to the murder mystery genre as it’s place in modern cinema has become stale. Perhaps much of this has to do with how antiquated it is, or that each iteration is disappointingly similar to the last, or that frankly, audiences don’t care about more “Murder on the Orient Express” remakes. Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt the formerly beloved genre needed a shakeup, and if anyone could do it, it’s Rian Johnson. Ever since his feature debut “Brick,” Johnson’s mystery, noir, and novelistic sensibilities have been made abundantly clear. It was only a matter of time before he committed to a true whodunnit and “Knives Out” is nothing short of spectacular. Not since “Clue” has there been such a wildly entertaining good old fashioned murder mystery. Rian Johnson breathes new life into a neglected genre with his Agatha Christie inspired throwback offering a timely modern twist on a classic favorite.

Wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and his extended family gather to celebrate the author’s 85th birthday. Little did he know it would be his last as the following morning, the Thrombey’s wake to discover his unexpected death. With the source of their wealth gone, the already dysfunctional family fights over the dispersal of Harlan’s estate. Meanwhile, legendary detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) seeks to unravel the mystery surrounding Harlan’s death.

With a cast of characters this colorful, it’s almost surprising that “Knives Out’s” biggest standout is Rian Johnson’s exceptional script - then again…it’s Rian Johnson. Johnson sharpens a precise “Murder She Wrote” inspired narrative that slices its way through utterly delicious monologues and mayhem. As the pieces begin to fall into place, we’re left with a brisk, witty, unexpected mystery that manages to pull out its fair share of surprises. Perhaps what’s most impressive, however, is while Johnson revives a bygone genre, he does so by deconstructing and flipping it on its head as the conventional whodunnit playbook is thrown out the window.

Johnson contextualizes “Knives Out” in present-day as he takes subtle jabs at the entitled and their supposed self-made lineage (sound familiar?). As the foundation of their entitlement begins to crumble, these “civilized” folk shed their fake facades revealing their ugly, pathetic, honest selves. While expertly written down to the last detail, these colorful characters truly leap off the page once inhabited by a cast for the ages.

It’s hard not to be struck by the sheer star power on display in this throwback. We simply don’t see movies like this anymore. Rian Johnson understands that a cast like this is a real treat pushing the limits of their creativity to hammier heights. At the center of it all is Daniel Craig’s Hercule Poirot inspired southern detective Benoit Blanc. Craig radiates charisma and charm which he effortlessly transfers to everyone around him. He chews each scene like it’s his last savoring the richness of Johnson’s writing. One can feel the energy of a scene escalate as soon as Blanc enters the room, allowing for the eccentricities of the ensemble shine. Each member of the Thrombey family has a scene-stealing moment, especially during their personal accounts of the events leading up to the murder. Toni Collette, Don Johnson, and Michael Shannon especially prove to be comedic gold; however, it’s Chris Evans who lights up the screen as Ransom Drysdale-Thrombey.

In a devilish departure from America’s Ass to merely an ass, Chris Evans dials it up to eleven with pure manic energy for what is his most eccentric performance yet. Exuding the perfect amount of enthusiasm, Evans thrives on cheeky one-liners, zingy insults, and narcissistic tendencies (now where have we seen that before?) as he elicits the most laughs. However, once one looks past Ransom’s outward ego, the character becomes a far more interesting and textured individual who’s cunning wit and intellect expand Evans’ nuanced sandbox.

As the Thrombey’s hold a knife to each other’s throats in a fierce battle over Harlan’s fortune, the deceased patriarch’s sweet caregiver Marta takes center stage as the film’s primary protagonist. Ana de Armas, in a career-best performance, breathes a kind-hearted and pure soul into the character of Marta who literally cannot tell a lie without vomiting - a quirk Johnson indulges just the right amount. The daughter of South American immigrants, Marta is welcomed into the family until Harlan’s untimely demise threatens their financial stability. As their duplicitous MAGA tendencies manifest themselves, poor Marta becomes a target entangled in their web of schemes with no one but Blanc to look to for help. As the mystery unfolds, the experiences transform her, allowing de Armas to craft a winning performance with range as audiences can’t help but cheer her on.

With elaborate and detailed production design and stunning cinematography, Rian Johnson further proves he’s the modern-day master of the murder mystery. “Knives Out” is simply why we go to the movies. It’s an endlessly fun, tremendously acted, expertly conceived and executed whodunnit that redefines the murder mystery genre for a new generation.