I love movies that don’t try to fix what isn’t broke.
The current cinematic landscape is, as we all know, littered with remakes and reboots and sequels and “spiritual sequels” and re-imaginings of everything from beloved children’s cartoons to decades-old science fiction franchises. If a popular story or subgenre or mash-up of subgenres can be mined for new material at the box office, it will be. I don’t have a particular problem with this, but sometimes it means filmmakers and studio executives overthink the kinds of stories they’re telling to such a degree that they either accidentally back into a good idea or deliver nothing but a string of bad ideas just because they were trying to “subvert expectations” or disrupt the status quo of a certain kind of storytelling.
Then there are filmmakers like Rian Johnson, who understand how to step into a sandbox and play without making a mess of things.
Johnson did this famously (and, depending on who you ask, divisively) with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” a film that takes a lot of risks and upsets a lot of conventions of its franchise while also still delivering the “Star Wars” goods in a very recognizable way. For his follow-up to “Last Jedi,” Johnson didn’t choose another franchise, but he did choose a very particular subgenre: The cozy mystery. Johnson’s new film, “Knives Out,” is a tribute to the great whodunits of Agatha Christie and other mystery legends, complete with an eccentric cast of characters, a strange old mansion, and a detective with an accent and some unusual methods. Just as he did with “Star Wars” (and with time travel thrillers via his film “Looper”), Johnson approaches this subgenre, which he clearly loves, with a sense that certain things simply must exist within his film in order to give the audience what they want. Then, once that context is established, he begins to play with old toys in new ways. The result is the most fun you’re likely to have at the movies this year.
The mystery at the heart of Johnson’s film concerns Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a rich and successful mystery author who’s found dead by his housekeeper the morning after his entire family visited to celebrate his birthday. In the wake of his death, many questions surround the circumstances, as well as the various members of the Thrombey family who may or may not have had access to Harlan in the hours after his party. That means investigators are still lurking around the Thrombey mansion, including the eccentric Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a “private investigator of great renown” who’s been mysteriously contracted to get to the bottom of whatever happened to Harlan. To get to the truth he’ll have to handle Harlan’s power broker daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), put-upon son (Michael Shannon), kindly nurse (Ana de Armas), spoiled grandson (Chris Evans), entitled son-in-law (Don Johnson), and a whole host of other characters. As secrets are revealed and personalities clash, it becomes clear that Harlan’s death might not be the most brutal thing about the Thrombey family after all.
The less said about what happens next, the better. This is a whodunit, after all, and Johnson’s camera is clearly eager to focus in on all the intricate details of the Thrombey family’s existence that you’d expect from a mystery told on this rather intimate scale. There’s the establishing of the timeline, the character who starts to crack, the detective explaining his methods, and of course the speeding up of the film’s pace as it rockets toward a solution. It’s all there, and if you’re a fan of whodunits at all, you’ll see how clearly and gleefully Johnson lays it out. The classic mystery tropes and trappings are on full display, including all the twists and turns within. It’s what happens within that framework, though, that makes “Knives Out” truly wonderful.
Within the confines of his whodunit framework, Johnson uses every narrative trick in his arsenal to present a complex, deeply funny, and visually inventive look at both a murder investigation and a family on the brink. We see it in the continued use of cutaways to the film’s lavish and extraordinarily detailed set. We see it in the liberal use of family gossip, both relevant to the investigation and not, in the Thrombeys’ dialogue. And of course, we see it in the casting, which reflects both Johnson’s excellent taste in actors and the film’s overall sense of joy. As nasty as some of these characters are, there’s a sense of warmth and genuine running through the whole piece. No one here is showboating or pretending they’re in a different movie. Everyone is bursting with excitement over putting on this particular show, and that comes through in every frame.
“Knives Out” is not just a masterpiece in its chosen subgenre, though it certainly is that. It’s one of the most exuberantly fun, wickedly funny, refreshingly earnest movies of the year. I had a blast, and you will too.
‘Knives Out’ is in theaters November 27.