‘Knives Out’ Film Review: The Stars Are the Suspects in Serviceable Whodunnit

Rian Johnson loves his mystery tropes, but the promising ensemble (and art direction) aren’t used to full effect

Last Updated: November 27, 2019 @ 10:13 AM

Writer-director Rian Johnson assembles the makings of a great whodunnit for “Knives Out” and winds up making a good one. It’s a perfectly entertaining film, but its attributes and apparent ambitions make the results just a bit disappointing.

Johnson has always been a filmmaker whose love of genre somewhat exceeds his results, and so in the same way that “The Brothers Bloom” is about the idea of screwball comedy more than it’s a great example of one, “Knives Out” celebrates the twisty, all-star murder mystery without ever outshining films like “Sleuth” and “The Last of Sheila” that clearly inspired it.

That’s not to say “Knives Out” isn’t entertaining; there’s a lot to love here, from the twists and feints of Johnson’s screenplay to the all-star cast’s relish of their devious dialogue to the massive mansion (full of secret doors and windows, of course) to the insouciance with which Chris Evans’ rancid preppy wears a distressed cable-knit sweater. I found myself wanting more of everything, but at least it’s all there.

When legendary crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found with his throat slit on the morning after his 85th birthday party, the police rule it a suicide; however, an anonymous client has hired legendary private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the possibility that it was murder. And were it indeed a homicide, Harlan’s house was packed to the gills with potential heirs, and thus potential assailants, including his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, deliciously brittle) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson), son Walt (Michael Shannon), and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette).

And what about the other various in-laws and grandchildren milling about? Or Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, “The Righteous Gemstones”) or his personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, “Blade Runner 2049”)? Or even Harlan’s somehow-still-living mother (K Callan)?

To say more about the plot would be its own kind of crime, but suffice it to say that Johnson keeps the clues, the suspects and the red herrings popping throughout, and he uses the obnoxious Thrombeys’ relationships with Fran and Marta as a way to make clever digs about how the haves treat the have-nots.

It’s difficult to talk about what does and doesn’t work in “Knives Out” without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that while the all-star cast gets prominent placement in the marketing, they’re less well-utilized in the film, with many of the players disappearing for long stretches as Blanc and hapless police investigator Lt. Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) begin focusing in on a specific set of suspects. Everyone involved makes the most of their screen time — although Craig’s Southern-fried accent is so ludicrous, I spent much of the film convinced it was a plot point — but I was left wanting much more from many of the players.

The Thrombey estate itself is also underutilized; like the mansion owned by the board-game magnates in this year’s “Ready or Not,” there seemed to be ample opportunity to make the most of the tricks and traps and puzzles that the lord of the manor so clearly enjoys. (“Knives Out” is probably one of the few American movies ever to use the Chinese game Go as a plot point.) But despite fine work by production designer David Crank (“Inherent Vice”), art director Jeremy Woodward (“Live by Night”) and set decorator David Schlesinger (“John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum”), the house never plays as much of role as it could have, either in the murder itself or for the ambience of danger and mystery.

Johnson is having fun with his post-“Star Wars” clout, and he’s littered the film with jokes and references for movie and murder-mystery buffs — Curtis and Johnson, for example, are the daughter and son-in-law of Hitchcock heroines — so “Knives Out” offers multiple levels of engagement and enjoyment. It’s just that it’s always hinting at the superior film it might have been.

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