“This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet.”
Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi), Knives Out was one of the most clever and intricately crafted films of 2019. It affectionately pays homage to the classic murder-mystery “whodunnit” while also completely flipping the script and reinventing the formula. I fell in love with this movie instantly when I saw it in theaters, and it became one of my top five favorite films of 2019.
For those who missed its theatrical run, you now have a chance to see this spectacular film on Amazon Prime. With its debut on the streaming service, I rewatched it, and I was not disappointed. Knives Out is a movie that only gets better with subsequent viewings. Much like the donut hole at the center of the case, the movie only gets deeper the more you see it.
Knives Out follows Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as he investigates the “suicide” of wealthy murder-mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Everyone in his eccentric family is a suspect, as Blanc suspects foul play.
This movie has one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory, including Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, LaKeith Stanfield, and Katherine Langford. Every single performance in this film is phenomenal, but Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc may just be the highlight of the movie. His accent is so hammy and outrageous that it shouldn’t work at all, but Craig and Johnson make it work. For a film that is so clearly set in the modern day, Craig’s performance infuses the movie with the older aesthetic of the kinds of movies that so clearly influenced Johnson.
The screenplay for Knives Out is simply brilliant. Within five minutes of rewatching this movie, I found an abundance of references and remarks to the story’s conclusion. It is incredibly dense and filled with details, while also retaining a great sense of humor and political commentary. There is so much going on at once that it seems like constructing this screenplay would be an impossible task. Johnson, however, manages to make it seem effortless.
Knives Out doesn’t just contain an interesting mystery; that would be too easy for Johnson to do. By playing up Blanc’s accent, the audience immediately associates this film with the murder-mysteries of old. It instantly feels right at home with an Agatha Christie novel. This is important and deliberate, as Johnson wants you to anticipate the formula and have an expectation for how the movie is going to play out. Then he completely flips everything on its head.
I won’t say anything specific as to retain the mystery of the film, but Johnson makes the bold and unthinkable decision to reveal how Thrombey died in the first act. Once the audience knows that piece of information, isn’t the movie over? How do you keep going from there? Ultimately, the movie isn’t about the mystery; it’s not about how Thrombey died. It’s the story of this family — their greed and selfishness — and how Thrombey’s caretaker, Marta (de Armas), navigates them.
Ana de Armas is the heart of the film. As much as Blanc may be initially perceived to be the focus of the movie (part of Johnson playing into expectations), Marta is this film’s lead. I don’t want to go into too much about what makes her character so great, but she is one of the film’s best personalities. De Armas plays it perfectly, and you immediately buy in and root for her. De Armas’ very down-to-earth and realistic performance perfectly contrasts Craig’s over-the-top character and the rest of the family’s quirks.
In some incredibly subtle ways — and some others not so subtle — Knives Out explores classism and microaggressions. The Thrombeys are a substantially wealthy family, a family that has never known want. With this, there is a distinct way in which they treat Marta. A recurring motif in the film is that every time one of the family members refers to the country Marta’s family emigrated from, they say a different country. They always look at Marta as “an other”, regardless of how much they say she is part of the family. Even the characters that you think are the good ones, the people who stand up for Marta against the overt racists, are still covertly racist towards her.
Just when you think you have everything figured out, Johnson isn’t done subverting expectations. A film that answers its own mystery in the first act still manages to deliver on a third act reveal that changes everything. The trajectory of this movie — and how everything is set up and plays out — should be studied in screenwriting classes; it is simply a work of genius.
Overall, Knives Out is a remarkable film. The writing is top notch, as are the performances, as is the direction, as is the production design, as is the score, and as is pretty much every other element of this movie. It only benefits from multiple viewings, as there are so many subtle clues and references sprinkled throughout. There is really something for everyone in this film. If you haven’t had a chance to see Knives Out yet, it is certainly a must-see movie.
Knives Out is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Author: Nathanael Molnar, originally published [7/7/2020]