There are few entertainments as satisfying as a good murder mystery, which is why Knives Out is one of the best films I’ve seen this year—it’s a GREAT murder mystery. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is a twisty-turny mystery that nods to everything from Christie, Hammett, and Jessica Fletcher, to modern day internet troll culture (the latter definitely informed by Johnson’s own experience with toxic fandom—STAR WARS DOESN’T DESERVE HIM). The mystery centers on the Thrombey clan, who are in the second and third generation of a fortune built by their patriarch, mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The morning after his 85th birthday, Harlan is found in his study, dead by apparent suicide. Or is it?
The ensemble here is FANTASTIC. I’ve seen several films at TIFF that depend on a solid ensemble—I wonder if one of the side effects of Marvel’s dominance is studios assuming audiences prefer ensembles now—but none have been better than the cast of Knives Out. The cast is absolutely stacked, and the axis around which all the action revolves is Ana de Armas as Marta, Harlan’s caregiver and only friend. Marta finds herself in the middle of the investigation thanks to private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Benoit Blanc is something of a famous detective, having been profiled in The New Yorker as “the last of the gentleman sleuths”. I hope we get a whole Benoit Blanc cinematic universe.
Sporting a ridiculous Southern drawl and a tweed coat, Craig is in full-farce mode, working a Columbo routine that relies on Marta’s inability to lie without puking to decipher the varying motives of the Thrombey family. With Marta and her lie-detector stomach, Blanc sets out to trace Harlan’s last night on Earth, but the more of the truth of that night that is exposed, the weirder and tenser the family gets. Benoit observes the family, who can’t even pretend to get along in front of the police.
The family members include Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who built a real estate empire thanks to a loan from daddy (a-hem); her son Ransom (Chris Evans), a classic trust fund layabout; Walter (Michael Shannon), who runs the family publishing house; Joni (Toni Collette), Harlan’s daughter-in-law who is a Goop-style influencer; and the grandkids Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and Meg (Katherine Langford), who hurl insults like “alt-right troll” and “liberal snowflake” at each other. There are a lot of shots taken at Jacob which feel like Johnson working out some of his internet-induced trauma—someone describes Jacob as “masturbating in the bathroom to photos of dead deer”. Johnson uses the Thrombeys to make some astute class observations: They love Marta and consider her part of the family, unless and until their REAL family is threatened, and then she is the help. They all think she’s from a different part of Latin America, and son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) quotes Hamilton as proof of wokeness (it’s the new “I would have voted for Obama three times if I could”).
Knives Out is really f-cking funny, but Johnson doesn’t miss a beat with the mystery, either. It is satisfyingly twisty, playing like a modern-day Agatha Christie, complete with quirky detective-savant. That Johnson also plucks some class strings is an added bonus—he doesn’t have to do this much work in a film so goddamn entertaining, but his riffs on class feel totally organic, arising from the circumstances of this wretched family. He plays the MAGA card just as well, though the Thrombey family is not exclusively of one political persuasion—Johnson totally nails the “oh not this again” dynamic of families that can’t stop arguing about politics. For a film so dependent on strict plotting, Knives Out is refreshingly freewheeling, going in multiple directions and drawing humor out of all of them. It feels as loose and unstructured as one of Benoit Blanc’s monologues, only to focus sharply at just the right moment to reveal the killer in our midst—the murderer of Harlan Thrombey, but also the toxic hazard of generational wealth.