[TIFF Review] ‘KNIVES OUT’ – Rian Johnson’s sleight-of-hand mystery hits like a brick with all its fun surprises

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James Clay // Film Critic

KNIVES OUT

Rated R, 130 minutes.
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Noah Segan and Christopher Plummer

TORONTO – Mysteries play out with hilarity in Rian Johnson’s incredibly entertaining whodunit, KNIVES OUT. The film, which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend, has a distinct point of reference: Agatha Christie’s murder mystery novels. The renowned author often assembled a vast array of characters and filtered them through elaborate hijinks with the all-knowing Detective Poirot.

Coming off the hot, hot heat from within a galaxy far, far away (STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI), Johnson brings together a commanding ensemble and sharpens his storytelling utensils to craft a narrative that follows Christie’s path and takes many fun detours to make the film his own.

Featuring the talents of Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, and a scene-stealing Ana De Armas, among many others, KNIVES OUT sees the gathering of the Thrombey family for the patriarch’s 85th birthday. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a wildly successful author of mystery novels (cue the hat tip to Christie) and is in the process of cutting out a few of his lecherous family members who have been draining his $60 million fortune.

However, on the eve of his celebration at his Gothic Massachusetts estate, Harlan is found dead with his throat slit in an apparent suicide. This causes a detective (LaKeith Stanfield), a state trooper (Noah “Kid Blue” Segan) and Southern private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate and interview the surviving members of the Thrombey family.

At first, trying to remember every character’s name is exhausting. Thankfully, Johnson employs helpful name cards that explain everyone’s position in the Thrombey hierarchy. Harlan’s eldest daughter, Linda (Curtis), is a “self-made” business owner with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson). Joni (Collette), the wife of the deceased Harlan, works as an Instagram influencer – and since his death, she has been taking a yearly allowance to soften her grief.

Linda and Richard’s son, Ransom (Chris Evans, in his most verbose role yet), has been coasting on his trust fund and has a nauseating ego to go along with it. And, finally, there’s the youngest son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who’s limited mobility reflects his reputation with his siblings and his ability to run Harlan’s publishing company. Despite the bravado of each member of this twisted clan, they are all dealing with strange inferiority complexes.

Oh, and most importantly, there is Marta (Armas of BLADE RUNNER 2049 fame), who plays the deceased’s nurse. She’s from some South American country the Thrombey’s can’t see to nail down. The first act of the movie shows Marta with Harlan in his most intimate quarters. She’s sweet, understands him and has patience – a quality nobody in his family possesses. (Plummer and Armas have a wonderfully relaxed rapport, dancing around Johnson’s nimble dialogue that’s like potpourri for the ears.) After a series of events, Marta finds herself attached to the hip of Blanc as he pieces together the clues of who has killed Harlan.

KNIVES OUT always looked like it would be a delicious whodunit, but Johnson’s film far exceeds being a merely slight romp. It’s an indictment on all of the flack he took from the alt-right corners of the Internet. The filmmaker received an endless stream of vomit during the online conversation surrounding THE LAST JEDI. But he always kept his cool, biding his time, and now we know why.

This supremely entertaining film was a big middle finger to all his haters, and he outwits them at literally every turn. Not only is this Johnson’s best film, but it’s also a minefield of wonderfully flowing dialogue. Think the farce of the Coen brothers mixed with the audacity of Quentin Tarantino, and the rewatch-ability of Bong Joon-Ho’s films. It’s that level of enjoyment.

Every talent in the cast gets their time to shine with small moments. But if there were any complaints to be made, it’s that some characters are sidelined as the detective work takes the foreground. Thankfully, Craig is so juicy with his Colonel Sanders accent. You can only imagine how blessed we would be to get several more films featuring Benoit Blanc. This would be the perfect transition for Craig after he hands over the keys to his Aston Martin and his 007 suits.

KNIVES OUT is a superb film that people should watch with the most massive crowd possible. It is so full of surprises that it’s a cinematic dream. This film is a total bullseye from Johnson who made one of the absolute most fulfilling films of the year. Run, don’t walk – KNIVES OUT flat-out rules!

Grade: A+

KNIVES OUT screened at Toronto International Film Festival. It will also close Fantastic Fest later this month. Lionsgate will release the film on November 27.