Arts movie review

‘Knives Out’ keeps you guessing until the end

Johnson crafts a delightful and whimsical whodunnit that’s a must-watch for all mystery lovers

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Ana de Armas stars as Marta in 'Knives Out.'
Courtesy of Claire Folger

Knives Out
Directed by Rian Johnson
Screenplay by Rian Johnson
Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon
Rated PG-13, Playing Nov. 27

An elegant Tudor mansion on an isolated estate. An assortment of eccentric characters, each with something to hide. A recently edited will that raises more questions than answers. And, of course, the impetus of it all: a dead body. It’s a setting that anyone who has ever picked up a mystery novel is intimately familiar with. But after decades of police shows, procedurals, reboots, and remakes, you’d be forgiven for thinking the quaint charm of a closed door whodunnit had worn off. Boy, does Rian Johnson have an answer for you. In his latest project, Knives Out, he manages to do the impossible, injecting fresh life and style into a genre that has slowly grown stale over the years while giving his audience the impression that they’ve stepped right into the pages of a modern day Agatha Christie story.

When famed mystery novelist Harlon Trombey (Christopher Plummer), the head of the wealthy Trombey household, is found dead on the eve of his 85th birthday, the police declare it a clear-cut case of suicide. But something doesn’t quite add up, and an anonymous letter suggests there’s more to Harlon’s death than meets the eye. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a calculating private sleuth whose classy French name belies his Colonel Sanders accent and whimsical sense of humor. The entire Trombey family and everyone associated with it are placed under suspicion as the true circumstances behind Harlon’s death are slowly and methodically unraveled. In a way, Harlon unintentionally wrote the beginning of one last mystery before his passing — that of his own murder.

The film opens with a series of quick shots of the interior of the Trombey manor, which is beautifully designed as an altar to both the decadence of the upper-class American elite and the all-too-familiar tropes of the mystery genre. In addition to all the ornate statues and figurines, oil-painted portraits, bear pelt carpets, and overflowing stacks of books, the wood-paneled walls are also home to secret trapdoors, passageways for eavesdroppers, and a creaky staircase that provides more than one character with an alibi. The meticulous attention to the film’s set design is perhaps best encapsulated in the chamber in which Blanc conducts his interviews with the family members. Between all the masks, puppets, and countless other theater-inspired props in the room, the film seems to positively scream that its characters are putting on a grand performance for the detective.

And what a performance it is! The film’s all-star ensemble cast does not disappoint, proving the perfect match for Johnson’s creative vision. There’s Harlon’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a “self-made woman” who turned a measly million-dollar loan into a real estate empire. Her brother (Michael Shannon) has never had to work a day in his life, and her sister-in-law (Toni Collette) is a Gwyneth Paltrow-like lifestyle guru and “Insta influencer” with her own skincare brand “Flam.” The obligatory black sheep of the family is the trust-fund playboy Ransom (Chris Evans). It’s just the exact assortment of archetypes that could overpower the underlying narrative (as in a closed-door set piece like Clue). Not so in Knives Out; as Blanc interrogates each suspect one-by-one, the camera cuts to flashbacks from their perspective revealing the secrets they’re desperately trying to hide. The result is a refreshingly unorthodox mystery in which you always feel one step ahead of Blanc… until Johnson pulls out the carpet from underneath you in a delightfully satisfying final scene.

The most impressive performance of the film, however, rightly belongs to Ana de Armas, who stands out against Hollywood heavyweights such as Christopher Plummer and Daniel Craig. Playing Marta, Harlon’s nurse and trusted companion, Armas approaches her role as the moral center of the film with a kind heart and a fresh sincerity. If only the Trombeys could see her the same way; they may not remember whether she’s from Brazil or Ecuador or Paraguay, but the one thing they’re certain about is that “America is for America.” The swiftness with which the family discards Marta as “the help” once Harlon dies provides the strongest insight into the film’s undercurrent of social criticism aimed at the fabulously rich and entitled in America, who view their wealth as an irrevocable ancestral birthright. While not every rich American in this film is an openly alt-right neo-Nazi like the downright deplorable teenager Jacob Trombley (Jaeden Martell) — after all, his cousin (Katherine Langford) majors in feminist studies at Smith — they’re all cut from the same cloth. Once Marta threatens their way of life, it’s only a matter of time before the knives come out.

Fortunately, Johnson’s efforts at constructing a mystery film that also has something meaningful to say about race and class relations in contemporary America never come off as heavy-handed, partly because the film balances it with plenty of lighter social commentary about millennial culture in the form of hilarious one-liners. “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” Linda remarks in complete seriousness when she first meets Blanc. In her defense, the detective isn’t exactly immune to the trappings of modernity himself either; when Marta fails to understand a reference he makes to the Pynchon novel Gravity’s Rainbow, he responds, “I haven’t read it either, but I like the title.” Johnson expertly mixes in such comedic bits without making them feel overdone or forced, which helps to keep the film relatively light-hearted despite the looming mystery. Between the suspense and comedy, there is never a dull moment throughout the film. 

At the end of the day, Knives Out is a perfectly paced whodunnit that keeps the audience on their feet, taking us through a maze of twists and turns while always maintaining believability. Just when you think you have something figured out, a new detail emerges to upend your seemingly foolproof theory. Johnson doesn’t unnecessarily linger over the side details he reveals about his characters, but introduces them just long enough for the audience to grasp the whole picture before pushing the film back to the main storyline. The result is an engaging and irresistible narrative that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

Get your applause out for Knives Out, for this is an all-around spectacular film. The best way to truly enjoy this movie is not by attempting to solve the mystery (chances are you won’t), but by just being in the moment and letting it work its magic on you.