What do you get when you throw a slew of famous faces into a comedic murder-mystery movie written and directed by Rian Johnson? The trailers and promotional pull quotes would have you believe it’s a zany, madcap whodunit – yay! Who doesn’t love a zany, madcap whodunit?!
Problem is, what you see in those ads isn’t necessarily what you get when you sit down for Knives Out. While the film does possess some sharp zingers, it’s nowhere near as kooky and crazy as I thought it would be. It’s still fun but I found it a little dull and occasionally pretty slow, largely because the audience discovers much of the who and how of its central mystery pretty early on... and most of the terrifically talented cast isn’t really in a lot of the film thereafter.
Set in a sprawling gothic mansion, the story revolves around the mysterious demise of ridiculously wealthy famous author and family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who’s found with his throat slit the morning after his family’s thrown him a big birthday party. Local cop Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) is sent to investigate what appears to be a suicide but is unexpectedly aided by Southern super-leuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, in a hilarious turn), who’s been hired by an anonymous benefactor to prove that Harlan was, in fact, murdered.
The list of possible suspects is plucked from the Thrombey family tree – all of whom, it’s revealed, were going to be cut out of Harlan’s will – and includes: feuding oldest son and daughter-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) and Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who run a real-estate firm; son Walt (Michael Shannon), the would-be heir to the Thrombey publishing empire; New-Age-y daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette); and self-absorbed estranged youngest son Ransom (Chris Evans). There’s also Harlan’s saintly caregiver, Marta (Ana de Armas), who’s like a breath of warm, loving air amid the vipers.
In Blanc’s eyes, every single one of them had motive and opportunity... but before you can say “beignet and coffee!” the details of the incident leading to Harlan’s death are revealed to the audience, so the “mystery” kind of evaporates with much of the cast, as the story swerves to follow just two members of the expansive ensemble.
There’s a lot to really like about Knives Out, not the least of which is the eclectic group of actors assembled to play the Thrombeys. They’re all colorful and wacky and fun – with Evans, Curtis and Collette the standouts – and I wanted to see so much more of them together. The dysfunctional family dynamics are at the heart of much of the film’s comedy, but there just wasn’t enough of it, in my opinion. The latter half of the film pulls focus to just a few characters, leaving the rest to pop up occasionally but not significantly. Alas.
The script is also clever, tossing in red herrings alongside clever clues that will reward observant filmgoers. Yes, there are some twists and turns along the way to the anticlimactic climax, and more than a few BIG laughs, but (again) I thought the central mystery lost its punch far too early in the proceedings. I would have liked to have seen two or three convincing possible suspects carried through to the end, rather than just one, so that Blanc’s big “AHA!” moment of revelation would knock the audience on its collective heels as much as it does the Thrombeys.
Despite its flaws, Knives Out is still entertaining. Is it “the best time you’ll have at the movies this year!”? Debatable. Is it still a relatively good time, though? Yup.