Knives Out Review: Gratifying Genre Subversion


Knives Out is an intricately spun whodunit starring an eccentric sleuth that would tickle the likes of Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas star as super detective Benoit Blanc and nurse Marta, respectively. Marta is an unwilling, amateur John Watson to Craig’s country-fried Sherlock Holmes to delightful effect.

Renowned crime fiction author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday celebration. The party, attended by countless members of Harlan’s family (each eager to inherit his massive fortune), is chock full of suspects.

Marta, the sole outsider, nurse, and caretaker for the famed writer, draws immediate mistrust from the outwardly-warm family. Police investigating the matter (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are at an impasse and ready to rule Harlan’s death a suicide when Blanc, anonymously hired as a private detective, arrives on the scene.

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s first film since returning from a galaxy far, far away in 2017’s The Last Jedi is his best to date. Johnson’s dynamic duo of de Armas’s Marta and Craig’s Blanc is franchise-worthy. The pair are a yin-and-yang-style match of pathos and charm (de Armas) and whimsical, unexpected genius (Craig).

Craig, temporarily freed from his 007-branded franchise shackles, adopts the accent of a vaguely-Southern belle and persona of an anachronistic detective. (On second thought, forget I ever mentioned a potential Benoit Blanc Extended Universe.) De Armas, whose other roles include the only bright spot in the hollow War Dogs and an intentionally-shallow AI in Blade Runner 2049, makes the most of her lead role.

The rest of the ensemble is as well cast as de Armas and Craig. Plummer, the plucky, tender, mischievous patriarch at the heart of the story, humanizes his offbeat, affluent family. Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlan’s cutthroat real estate developer daughter. Richard (Don Johnson) is Linda’s deceptive, social husband. Ransom (Chris Evans) is Linda and Richard’s arrogant, spoiled son. Walt (Michael Shannon) runs his father’s publishing house and raises alt-right troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Joni (Toni Collette), the wife of Harlan’s dead son Neil, is a superficial lifestyle coach.

Evans, Collette, and Shannon, in particular, soak up every second of screen time. Evans luxuriating as a contemptuous playboy, Collette relishing the opportunity to play empty headed, and Shannon immersing himself in subtle, powerless villainy. The gathering family and crisp, pre-winter setting set the stage for a Thanksgiving release that fits Knives Out like the cozy, beige, knit sweater that envelopes Evans.

The shaky politics of holidays and family get-togethers don’t escape Johnson, either. The political undercurrents of Knives Out would seem out-of-place under a less mindful eye, but Johnson expertly weaves the kids-in-cages arguments into his (re-)inventive script. With Johnson targeting the Get Out-style of liberal insincerity in the family’s more disgraceful moments, the right isn’t the only side facing criticism.

Featuring a lovable, gumbo-flavored Hercule Poirot, consistent wordplay, and relentless, unanticipated twists, Knives Out is a mystery genre deconstruction. The traditional whodunit hasn’t felt this fresh since Christie published Murder on the Orient Express.