DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor — “Knives Out” (2019), screened by the Denison Film Society on the weekend of Oct. 24 – 25, belongs to a dying breed – a mid-budget genre film which achieved roaring success.
With recent circumstances in all likelihood hastening this sort of movie making’s demise, “Knives Out” feels retrospectively tragic, for it could be a long while before we see a film of its type, made with its caliber of quality, ever again.
The film opens up with mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) being found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party. Soon after, private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, affecting a purposefully ridiculous Southern accent) is called in by an anonymous figure to investigate the case, all the while the Thrombey brood squabble over the rights to their now deceased patriarch’s fortune.
Now, the story doesn’t wait until the third act climactic reveal of the killer to start making twists, so to say anything beyond the initial premise would risk spoiling things, and “Knives Out” is not a movie you want to watch knowing too much beforehand. So, I’ll just say that the (a). The focal point of the story ends up being someone different than you might expect and (b). The revelations pertaining to the mystery itself, and the direction the story takes as a result, are a effectively contemporary spin on the usual class politics found in the mystery novels which inspired this film.
Populating “Knives Out” is a truly remarkable ensemble cast which includes plenty of faces belonging to accomplished movie stars (Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans), to some of the most brilliant character actors working (Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson) to talented up-and-comers (Ana De Armas, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford), not a single one of them miscast or their talents misused by a very idiosyncratically funny script, stuffed with lines that may be puzzling out-of-context but onscreen simply sing.
No troupe is complete without a ringleader through, and director/screenwriter Rian Johnson easily rises to the occasion. Johnson is a storyteller very concerned with how the little details add up and who has a fondness for applying genre formulas in unconventional ways, so this Agatha Christie-throwback murder mystery is a perfect fit for his sensibilities.
One of the primary sequences in the first act is an interrogation of/introduction to the all Thrombey family members, which establishes their personalities and lays the seeds for why they might be the culprit. In a novel, like the ones penned by Christie which clearly inspired Johnson, these interrogation-introductions would happen in sequential order. To retune the scene for a more cinematic form, Johnson crosscuts between the different interrogations throughout, introducing almost half-a-dozen characters, their personalities, and any relevant motivations they might have, all in a single sequence.
My experience with every one of Johnson’s films, from his noir-in-a-high-school debut “Brick” (2005) to time travel thriller “Looper” (2012) to his contribution to the “Star Wars” myth with “The Last Jedi” (2017) has been essentially the same – admiration from a distance on the initial viewing, falling in love the 2nd time around. Watching “Knives Out” for the first time after seeing it during its initial theatrical run almost a year ago did not break the pattern; considering how sapped of entertainment value mysteries stories can become once you know all the answers, that Johnson made a film which not just holds up but improves after the first time is a testament to his talent, a testament you all should experience firsthand by watching the movie itself.