“Knives Out” Movie Review

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     Somewhere right now, Rian Johnson is smiling.  The “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” director, who took a completely unfounded drubbing from what I have to believe was an obnoxiously loud minority of fans because apparently they felt he didn’t take their beloved childhood story in the direction they wanted it to go, returns with the murder mystery “Knives Out”, one of the best films of the year.  Taking cues from Jordan Peele’s work in 2017’s “Get Out”, where biting social commentary was meshed with the spooky confines of the horror genre,  Johnson weaves a sumptuous yarn, utilizing pointed messaging via each character’s world view within a modern whodunit tale, while harking back to the narrative storytelling methods of yesteryear.

     In addition, an A-list ensemble featuring the likes of Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette take turns stealing scenes from one another, while the many supporting players, including Don Johnson, LaKeith Stanfield, and Katherine Langford enjoy plenty of memorable moments themselves.  “Knives Out” is one of those rare films where the dialogue and story remain front and center, leaving the audience not only satisfied, but wondering how a film like this could be pulled off in today’s landscape of mind numbing big budget spectacles.  The film is a complex and well layered character study of the inner workings of a wealthy family and the monsters within that are created through years of entitlement and expectation.  It’s both timely and extremely entertaining.

     I have to figure the characters from HBO’s “Succession” would fit perfectly within the world Johnson has created, as patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful crime novelist who has just reached his 85th birthday, comes to the long over due conclusion his family is not deserving of the status and financial benefits that come from his substantial wealth earned over a long and brilliant career.  What’s beneath him is a brutally dysfunctional group who has leached on to his coattails in an effort to mask their own shortcomings.  Aside from his daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is the only one of his children who has managed a lucrative career on her own, the rest rely on what he gives and allows.

     And while Linda’s husband, Richard (Don Johnson), maintains a high level of standing within the family due to marriage, he exudes the arrogant personality of a filthy rich slime ball, talking down to those in their father’s home who are responsible to cook, clean, and take care of him as his age advances.  Linda and Richard’s son, Ransom (Chris Evans), isn’t a favorite within the family either, and is often dismissed as a spoiled rich kid who hasn’t accomplished anything in life, while regularly missing important family gatherings altogether.  

     Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), has the top position at the publishing company Harlan created, and engages in regular clashes over his lack of decision making power.  In truth, Harlan knows his son isn’t capable of running the business and continues to undermine him by forging the company’s policies without his knowledge or counsel.  Rounding out the group is Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan’s oldest son.  Their daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), depends on her grandfather for college tuition and rounds out a group who would seemingly stand to gain quite a bit from Harlan’s demise.

     Johnson’s script lets us know immediately that Harlan was found dead on the night of his 85th birthday.  A night where the entire motley crew was in their father’s sprawling home and seen having notable arguments both out in the open and in private.  When the police arrive, they determine, based on the crime scene, that Harlan committed suicide.  But during questioning of each of the family members, there is a mysterious figure in the background.  Someone who is quietly listening to every word and observing every tick and mannerism of each person as they explain their whereabouts the previous evening.  Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is a world renowned private detective who appears on scene with the blessing of the police to assist in the investigation. Arriving; however, within a strange circumstance.  An envelope of cash appeared at his office with an anonymous note urging him to investigate Harlan’s death.  But who hired him?

     Each passing scene gives the audience plenty of reason to believe someone in the family may have had a hand in Harlan’s death.  As does the many interactions with Harlan’s housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), and his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), each of which have regular close interaction and could possess the knowledge necessary for Benoit to break the case wide open.  But where does he start?  There are so many unanswered questions and the family is only mildly cooperative as their concern lies more with the pending will reading rather than the grief of having lost their father in such suspect circumstances.

     As the story moves through a collection of well written and expertly acted scenes, the audience is given a number of clues of which you have to discern on the fly whether they are relevant or not.  Could these findings simply be a series of red herrings meticulously placed within the path of the investigation so as to point guilt in a different direction?  Or are these self serving morons actually capable of offing their father given the obvious motives presented in flashback sequences as the film careens toward the third act?  It’s where all of this ends up that you realize how well crafted “Knives Out” really is, with the tables turning instantly in a way that remains unpredictable and devilishly clever.  GRADE: A