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‘Knives Out’ a cut above

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Is there anything better than a good old-fashioned whodunnit? Getting dropped into the midst of a mystery as it unfolds can be an utterly delightful entertainment experience, whether we’re talking about the page, the stage or the screen.

Of course, the key here is the word “good.” Because while a good whodunnit is great fun, a bad one is decidedly not. There are a LOT of ways for a mystery to go bad and it is far from easy to make one that engages in all the ways it needs to engage.

“Knives Out,” the latest offering from writer/director Rian Johnson, isn’t good. It’s great.

From the film’s opening moments to its dynamic conclusion, “Knives Out” is firing on all cylinders. The aesthetic is exquisite, packed with details both ornamental and load-bearing. The narrative is nuanced, with a twisty-turny plot that finds ways to both celebrate and subvert the conventions of the genre. And the cast is magnificent, a collection of top-tier talent welded together into one of the most entertaining ensembles to hit theaters this year.

It is a modern twist of the knife, so to speak; a combination of Agatha Christie-esque manor house mystery with a 21st sensibility. It is smart and self-aware, layered and tense and surprisingly funny. It embraces stylistic formula while simultaneously being something altogether itself. It cuts quickly and deeply … and so very effectively.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, “Cliffs of Freedom”) is one of the most celebrated mystery authors in the world. His books have been translated into dozens of languages and sold upwards of 80 million copies. He is wealthy and wildly successful.

Well … he was, anyway.

You see, Harlan Thrombey is dead by his own hand, having taken his own life on the night of his 85th birthday party – a party that saw his children and their families join him at his palatial estate. All signs point to a suicide, and yet … something is amiss.

The entire family is assembled at the family home. There’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, “Halloween”) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson, TV’s “Watchmen”), along with their wayward son Ransom (Chris Evans, “Avengers: Endgame”). There’s son Walt (Michael Shannon, “Fahrenheit 451”), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome, “Under the Silver Lake”) and their young son Jacob (Jaeden Martell, “It Chapter Two”). There’s Joni (Toni Collette, “Velvet Buzzsaw”), the widow of Thrombey son Neil, and her teenage daughter Meg (Katherine Langford, TV’s “13 Reasons Why”). And there’s Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, “The Informer”), Harlan’s nurse and confidante.

A pair of police officers – Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, “Someone Great”) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan, “California No”) – arrive to ask some questions. They are accompanied, for reasons that no one can quite explain, by Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, “Logan Lucky”), a legendary detective whose fame is such that he was profiled in The New Yorker. Blanc has been hired by an anonymous client to investigate the fate that has befallen Harlan Thrombey.

What soon becomes clear is that seemingly every member of the Thrombey clan has a vested interest in the untimely demise of their patriarch. Whether it’s a fear of secrets being revealed or financial support being withheld or what have you, just about everyone has something to hide with regard to their relationship with Harlan. Even those who appear to have no possible connection at all might be concealing some sort of important truth. And it’s up to the Southern-fried sharp-mindedness of Benoit Blanc to make his way through the morass of false leads and half-truths to get to the bottom of what really happened – and what is meant to happen next.

“Knives Out” is a delight. There’s really no other way to say it. It manages to accomplish that rare feat of being a throwback to the films of a Hollywood gone by while also being very much of the moment. There’s a wonderful complexity to the plot that allows plenty of room for the unexpected; it’s kind of great to watch a film that you know intends to fool you, yet still manages to find methods of misdirection that will surprise and delight.

Rian Johnson is a legitimately great filmmaker. He has shown an ability to master genre fare, building it in a way that revels in the tropes and trappings while also elevating it into something sophisticated – all while being unerringly entertaining. He’s got a knack for clever dialogue and for guiding his actors to strong performances; both are in abundance here.

Actually, let’s talk about those actors, because holy hell is this a spectacular ensemble. And every single one of them brings it. You can tell when a cast is all on the same page, dedicated to capturing the vision set forth in front of them by the filmmaker … and this is one of them. Seriously – when Christopher Plummer is ninth-billed, you’ve got something special.

The Thrombey family is phenomenal top to bottom. Curtis is great as the uptight, entitled Linda; Johnson counterbalances her nicely as the close-minded, loudmouthed conservative Richard. Shannon is his usual delightfully weird self as Walt, with a lovely edge to him. Collette captures the precise right shade of New Age-y privilege. The young kids – Langford and Martell – more than hold their own alongside this group of powerhouse performances.

Armas does a lot of the heavy lifting and does so with a charismatic grace. And Evans is outstanding as the spoiled jerk Ransom, the utter embodiment of the unearned superiority that oozes from a certain brand of trust fund kid.

All this leaves aside the absolute masterfulness of Craig as the gently Southern Benoit Blanc. He is a drawling, purring delight, giving a delicate and hilarious performance as a sort of cornpone Poirot. In a collection of standouts, he is the standout.

“Knives Out” is a film both familiar and completely unique, an old-school whodunnit from a new-school filmmaker. It’s a razor-sharp mystery – one that cuts deep.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 08 December 2019 17:16

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