Knives Out review – Rian Johnson’s Finely Tuned Murder Mystery | Toronto Film Festival 2019

Knives Out is tough one to discuss without spoiling because the reason we watch murder mysteries is to experience the thrill of seeing all the pieces of the puzzle come together. The smallest of details can often be considered a spoiler, and trust me, Knives Out is stuffed with small details – so I’m gonna have to tread lightly.

Knives Out is written and directed by Rian Johnson – best known for The Last Jedi but also made the awesome genre-blending films such as Looper and Brick.  His latest Film Knives Out tackles the classic whodunnit murder mystery genre. A genre that is often associated with the 1930’s and 40’s when it was made popular by authors like Agatha Christie

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It’s evident in Knives Out that Johnson has a deep-rooted love for the genre but he’s also completely aware of the codes, conventions and cliché’s that often leave the genre feeling quite dated – you only have to look at 2017’s underwhelming star-studded Murder on the Orient Express to see how stodgy these films can be. Johnson however, has infused Knives Out with a gleeful sense of self-awareness making it a very fresh and breezy watch. Because he’s cheekily subverting expectations he’s created something that feels old-school but modern at the same time and it’ll keep you guessing until the very end.

The plot of the film is centred around the death of best selling crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) who is found dead in his attic office the morning after his 85th Birthday party. The way his throat was cut indicates it was suicide but Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play and invites all of Harlan’s family members and employees who attended his party back to Harlan’s secluded house for interrogation. The opening interrogations cleverly provide the viewer with all the necessary exposition about the setting, the characters as well their motives as to why each of them might’ve killed Harlan. As each of the family members recounts where they were and what they saw that night – the vignettes add up to one broader picture of the truth.

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The colourful cast of characters (or suspects if you will) include; Harlan’s eldest daughter Linda played by Jamie Lee Curtis, her cheating husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their son Ransom – the black sheep of the family, played by Chris Evans. There’s Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni,  a self-absorbed and self-proclaimed “influencer” played terrifically by Toni Colette, as well as her teenage daughter Meg (played by Katherine Langford). And to top off the family is Harlan’s youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their alt-right offspring Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Everyone of them are shady and twitchy enough to be suspicious of. The only attendee that Benoit rules out is Harlan’s trusted nurse and friend Marta (Ana de Armas)  – whose nationality is somewhat of a recurring gag but I won’t spoil it for you. The reason she can be trusted is because of her telltale affliction which causes her to violently vomit if she tells a lie. Along with her kind compassionate nature Benoit enlists her as his Watson to help crack the case.

First of all, the performances in Knives Out are all brilliant. Everybody is having fun here and las the saying goes; when they’re having fun, you’re having fun. There are four performances that truly stand out and that’s because three out of four of them are playing delightfully against type: Daniel Craig, Toni Colette and Chris Evans.
Daniel Craig looks like he’s having more fun here as the Tweed-wearing Benoit than he’s ever had playing every boys dream role James Bond. His Kentucky accent is deliciously ridiculous because its reminiscent of Foghorn Leghorn with a mouthful of Molasses but one adapts quickly to his surly droll and it’s actually an admirable change of pace for Craig.

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Toni Colette is channeling some serious Gwyneth Paltrow GOOP vibes as the obnoxious social-media savvy, lifestyle guru Joni – arguably the funniest character. Somebody give Joni a spinoff lifestyle series on Netlflix – I’d watch that show. And Chris Evans who has spent the last 8 years playing “America’s Ass” Captain America has gone with his first post-Endgame role which is the very antithesis of Golden Boy Steven Rogers – the cussing swaggering bad boy Ransom.

As for the aforementioned fourth performance, well that honour goes to the MVP Ana De Armas who plays Marta – she’s the straight man to Daniel Craig’s wacky detective. Knives Out is a very sly and funny film but what De Armas valuably brings to the table is the emotionality. Her friendship to Harlan is the most visibly authentic pairing and De Armas holds her own against a cast of far-more-famous faces.

Rian Johnson script is wickedly fun and constantly keeps you on your toes. Just when you think you know what’s coming next Johnson completely subverts your expectations and goes in a totally different direction altogether. Johnson is so attuned as to what we as an audience are expecting with a murder mystery film but he refuses to play by the rules and conventions. Because he knows what we’re expecting, he exploits those expectations with a lot of tongue in cheek humour – mainly given to us by through the two police officers that accompany Detective Blanc, Lt Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). Lt Elliot points out the all-too-creepy setting of Harlan’s home – “this guy practically lives in a Clue Board”. And Trooper Wagner has one of the funniest bluntly observational lines when he says “that was the dumbest car chases ever”. These are just some of the many playful winks given to us by Johnson which is why it’s one of the most fun and funniest films of the year.

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Quickly going back to the subject of Harlan’s house the art direction from Jeremy Woodward is impeccably designed. Harlan’s rustic house is a character in itself. It’s the type of film setting that you hope they someday turn in to an attraction that you can visit and walk around. There’s lots of hidden passages, taxidermy, paintings and eyeballs that look like they’re watching you – giving you that feeling that somebody knows something more than what they’re letting on. The same can be said with the exquisite production design. The devil really is in the detail and I bet there’s a hundred things I didn’t catch on the first viewing – I wanna go back and watch it again to see what I missed. The score by Nathan Johnson (that’s Rian’s cousin by the way) is also a cunning mix of suspenseful chills and Hitchcockian thrills. The lickety-split editing is well done and heavily contributes to the breezy pace of the film.

The only downside is something minor and that’s that because this is a star-studded ensemble, not everyone is allotted the same amount of screen time as others so they can feel a bit forgotten about. But this is the risk that comes with a film with such a large cast – not everyone gets an equal slice of the pie.

To summarise guys, Knives Out is one of the most entertaining films of the year. What I loved about it is that Johnson managed to take a tired, recycled format and find a way to make it feel modern and fresh. It’s a completely original film and it’s not in the least bit predictable. The characters are really likeable as well as quotable “a will reading is like a community theatre production of a tax return”. It’s quick as whip, the art direction and production design are pristine and it’s just a finely-tuned, hysterically fun film.

5/5 Stars ★★★★★

Luke Hearfield

KNIVES OUT premiered at TORONTO & is set to be released on NOVEMBER 29TH

FILM TWEETS & REACTIONS @LUKEHEARFIELD ON TWITTER

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