Cinema Review: Knives Out | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, March 28th, 2020  

Knives Out

Studio: Lionsgate
Directed by Rian Johnson

Nov 22, 2019 Web Exclusive
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For all the recent discourse around Disney/Marvel/superheroes’ box office hegemony, little ink has been spilled over the shadow-genre that has developed in the wake of these tentpole franchises: the “personal” films that franchise directors make in between their bigger projects. Some return to their comfort zones (see: James Wan’s upcoming horror film, Malignant), some scale up their idiosyncrasies to match their increased budgets (Jojo Rabbit comes to mind), and some opt for self-sabotage (like Colin Trevorrow’s baffling The Book of Henry).

These are the circumstances into which Rian Johnson now releases Knives Out, his star-studded murder mystery and the “one-for-them, one-for-me” rest stop between billion-dollar Star Wars entries. The difference between Johnson and many of his peers, though, is that his “smaller, personal” films have always been unapologetic genre exercises, from the neo-noir, Brick, to the con-men caper, The Brothers Bloom, to the time-traveler, Looper. In this light, Star Wars feels less like a series of budget peaks amid the indie-valleys of his other films and more like an opportunity to check “space western” off of his career grocery list. “Whodunit” is simply up next.

Blessedly, Johnson brings the same wit, dynamism, and affection for genre conventions to Knives Out that he’s brought to each of his previous features. Knives opens with the discovery of a corpse: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a massively successful mystery author who had just celebrated his 85th birthday the night before, has had his throat slit. As tends to be the case when a wealthy patriarch is murdered, suspects abound: a stifled son who manages Harlan’s literary empire (Michael Shannon), a resentful daughter and her blowhard husband (Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), a daughter-in-law running a GOOP-knockoff (Toni Collette), a playboy grandson (Chris Evans), and a kindly, immigrant nurse (Ana de Armas), to name a few.

Because one investigator examining such a stacked cast wouldn’t suffice, we get three: a mystery-obsessed trooper (Johnson regular Noah Segan), an exasperated police lieutenant (Lakeith Stanfield), and enigmatic “gentleman detective,” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). The cast is energetic and game, clearly having a ball; the harshest critique one might offer is that the call sheet is a little too overstuffed for everyone to get a whole lot to sink their teeth into. Collette and Craig acquit themselves best (no pun/spoiler intended), with Craig bringing to mind shades of Joe Bang from Logan Lucky, while Collette reaffirms her status as the presumptive MVP of any cast she joins.

To describe any additional plot would be antithetical to the spirit of the film, and the film’s spirit is infectious. Suffice it to say that Johnson’s murder plot is ingeniously constructed, elegantly teased out, and thrillingly solved, with an ending as immensely satisfying as anything devised by Christie. That he can infuse it with both topical (though occasionally clunky) political commentary and genuine warmth is a happy bonus. He walks a fine line between the hazards of genre-reverence and academic deconstruction, leaving us, simply, with a masterful whodunit and one of the most purely entertaining movies of the year.


Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10


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