Following the tragic events of The Last Jedi, director and writer Rian Johnson needed a hit. The director’s proven track record of excelling with original content earned him the right to play with a big franchise. It only made sense for him to get as far away from franchise filmmaking as possible. His followup, Knives Out roots itself firmly in genre storytelling. Yet like many of Johnson’s projects, Knives Out reorients itself with whichever genre plays best at the moment. Featuring fascinating energy and political commentary laced throughout, Johnson proves he has plenty to say as a filmmaker and writer.
In Knives Out, acclaimed writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has passed away. However, his apparent suicide has come into question thanks to recent investigations of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). The Thrombey family resists the investigation as Harlan’s personal physician Marta (Ana de Armas) begins to reveal family secrets. With a sprawling ensemble featuring (Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, and more), the family’s frustrations bubble to the surface.
Johnson handles the story with extreme care, creating a film that feels explosive in its commentary and portrayal of the rich. The script skewers its characters, and you can feel the lack of empathy for the privileged characters of Knives Out. On the flip side, Johnson does not hide his allegiances to his perceived heroes. Despite his obvious feelings towards the characters that populate the screen, Knives Out feels like he dropped the characters into a sandbox and let nature take its course. He never pushes them to act outside their interests, and they feel like three-dimensional monsters wreaking havoc.
Even with all the stars, De Armas comes out of the fray as the breakthrough star. Playing a young nurse, cursed with a literal gag reflex around lies, her fish-out-of-water journey pushes her into a rollercoaster of emotional turmoil. De Armas owns the screen, and even amongst all these movie stars, you want her to succeed. You can feel her worry and fear, and the genuine humanity she imbues into her role makes her a fan-favorite. Her performance recalls the Hitchcockian heroines of the 1940s, and its exciting to see a modern-day equivalent. It’s a star-making turn, and with a bright future in 2020, this will be a huge piece of her emerging celebrity.
The star-studded cast gets plenty to do, and no one gets the short end of the stick. Curtis and Johnson shine as a couple struggling to maintain their marriage. It’s truly been a comeback year for Johnson, and he fits perfectly into this world of excess. The icy attitude Curtis cultivates, especially in contrast to the other women. Chris Evans plays up his movie star persona, becoming the Han Solo of the film. It takes a while for him to reach the screen, but once he joins the fray, you’ll think of little else. It’s a great turn that signals a bright post-Avengers career.
Michael Shannon and Toni Collette have become two of the most intense actors in Hollywood, yet Johnson gets them to tone it back. Despite this, Shannon still gets a sequence of genuine intimidation and fear. Playing off his persona as an electric and volcanic performer, Johnson gives Shannon some of the most subtle material he’s received in years. Collette gets the most comedic role on paper, and she leans into the material. Given a runway, she gets to play up the parody of her character, and Collette never gives her a moment of self-awareness.
Finally, the most entertaining performance comes from Craig. Playing a southern gentlemen detective, Craig gets to play up the exaggerations of Johnson’s character. It’s evident that Craig’s having a lot of fun on screen, and that energy translates. He’s locked into the absurdity of the role, and it showcases Craig’s obvious comedic talent. News is already coming out about future cases with his character and with good reason. He expertly delivers every line with nuance and charm. Craig gets to work out his character-acting muscles, and with any luck, this will encourage him to pursue more comedy in the future.
Johnson’s script expertly pays homage to the who-dun-it Agatha Cristie novels but takes an important modern spin on the genre. He updates many of the mystery tropes in Knives Out while playing into them when you begin to expect subversion. He keeps the audience on their toes at every turn. At the same time that he pays homage to an underappreciated genre, he weaves in modern political commentary. Immigration, the rise of political extremism, and economic inequality take center stage. Once again, Johnson proves he can hold multiple conversations at once. Despite all of these subjects coming up, Johnson crafts the most accessible and entertaining film of his career.