Knives Out is a quick-witted, revamped mystery that is, at its core, about the good in people, not their murderous instincts. Director Rian Johnson employs his miraculous cast in a story most closely comparable to a game of Mafia, as a detective and a private investigator try to determine the cause of death of a mystery novel magnate. With a backdrop of the stately Thrombey mansion and a rich family of money grabbers, the main character, Marta, is impressively played by the up-and-coming Ava de Armas.
In 2017 de Armas played a key role in Blade Runner 2049, but her performance in Knives Out is much more authoritative, nuanced, and magnetic. Marta is the close confidant and private nurse to our victim, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and she is very trusting but certainly not naïve. There’s an argument to be made here that Marta is the most complex and substantive role written of its kind, one which avoids annoying tropes and fits perfectly with de Armas’ lived-in performance.
The cast includes a wealth of other celebrities, including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, and Jamie Lee Curtis. A cast of stars that size can cause serious issues for a film, with actors trying to outdo each other or sacrificing too much character development.
Johnson sidesteps these issues deftly, by carefully choosing peppery moments of characterization and maintaining a deep commitment to character-based comedy. Each performance has its own sensibility, and picking a favourite is definitely some sort of Rorschach test — mine is Toni Collette. Do with that what you will.
If you were to read the script, devoid of character names, you would still be able to tell who’s saying each line. It’s that tight.
When Johnson came out to introduce the film at its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, he pumped up the audience by calling Knives Out a “classic whodunnit.” The film snaps between genre tropes and modern touches frequently, and evokes a similar edge-of-your-seat, Agatha Christie-esque feeling to its mystery. The movie is set to a snare-drum-heavy jazz score and has a self-reflexive structure, which is far more effective and intriguing than a simple final reveal.
Knives Out gives you the same feeling as driving down a dark road at night while listening to a funny podcast. You can barely see what’s six feet in front of you, and certainly not any further than that, but you’re having a great time. It’s not a ‘twist movie’ per se, it’s just a really good movie with spectacular planning and an attention to detail that rivals most actual police investigations.
The movie’s road is a spiral. Much of this has to do with Marta, who’s caught up in the death in a couple different ways, not least of which in her enlistment into solving the case by Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig). Marta is the daughter of an undocumented migrant, a fact not parachuted in, but woven into her character trajectory, the overall story progression, and Johnson’s main moral aims.
The divide between kind-hearted Marta and the Thrombeys is never more apparent than after Harlan’s death. The family squabbles over who is actually ‘self-made’ and who just coasts by on their parents’ money — hint: all of them coast.
The chasm between the Thrombey’s lifestyle and Marta’s is huge, yet the family does everything in their power to keep it that way. Even more frustrating is when they force her into a very timely discussion on the detention of asylum-seeking migrants and hand her an empty plate in the same breath, even though she is not a housekeeper.
It’s not a political film in terms of elections and debates, but it is political in the sense that this is actually what it feels like to be alive right now. Johnson somehow threads this needle, and pulls off a magic trick. He argues for goodness above all else, but recognizes the way the deck is stacked for the supremely wealthy, powerful, and white. It never feels hypocritical, and it never feels preachy. Magic.
Knives Out is going to be an absolute crowd-pleaser, and deservedly so. It’s beautiful and hilarious, and the genre-bending that Johnson pulls off is one for the books — the mystery books specifically. I’m not sure if it’s a great sign that a murder mystery is the film to nail our daily experiences, but it is a fantastic reminder that a movie can be about something as simple as goodness.