Two years ago, writer-director Rian Johnson took a shot at the next installation of everyone’s favorite space epic with “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi.” His highly controversial film had audience members in fits, asking questions like, “What is happening?” and “Why is this happening?” and “Who’s to blame for this mess?” And now, with his latest film “Knives Out,” he has audience members asking those same questions again, but this time for all the right reasons. His Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery is a unique blend of humor, mystery, and intrigue that keeps viewers guessing until the end, and it almost lives up to the lofty expectations that it sets for itself.
The morning following his 85th birthday, successful author and multimillionaire Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study, the victim of an apparent suicide. Following his funeral, gathered in their luxurious home, Harlan’s family is interviewed and scrutinized by a team headed by renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). As the family members’ quirks come to light, the façade of the “happy family” starts to crumble, and motives begin to appear; it looks as though Harlan’s death may not have been a suicide after all. And as Detective Blanc says, reclining in an armchair in front of a blazing fire, “I suspect foul play.”
The first half of the film is absolutely phenomenal, bolstered by brilliant character performances, fascinating buildup, and stellar writing. The family dynamic is, by and large, what holds the entire piece together and makes the mystery worth caring about. Each one of the Thrombey family members is clearly defined and unique, and their exaggerated personalities are entertaining. Toni Collette shines as Joni Thrombey, Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law. Through such roles as Annie in “Hereditary,” Collette has demonstrated her incredible acting skills. It is remarkable to watch her portray the spoiled and conniving Joni with such believability. Chris Evans’s performance as Ransom Drysdale, Harlon’s grandson, is also commendable. Coming off of his eight-year portrayal of Steve Rogers/Captain America, it’s refreshing to see him committing wholeheartedly to a new role, and to see how easy it is for both actor and viewer to cast off his Marvel shadow and move on to very different roles. The star of the show, however, is Craig. Sporting an uncharacteristic Southern drawl, he is both hilarious and captivating, perfectly encapsulating the character of a quirky, world-class detective and it is fascinating to watch his deductions play out throughout the film.
Rian Johnson expertly crafts the narrative, particularly in the first half. Within the first half an hour, while Detective Blanc is beginning his investigation, Johnson dumps a load of evidence, motives, and potential suspects on the viewer through a series of character interviews. This scene, in which most of the characters are introduced, is by far the most engrossing part of the film. The film demands the viewer’s attention as it begins to lay out the mystery’s puzzle pieces. It is up to the viewer to collect and interpret these pieces and to form their own theories about what could be going on in the family and who may have murdered Harlan Thrombey. Despite the presentation of a substantial amount of evidence, it never feels overwhelming. Within a short period of time, we get an extended look at the characters’ motivations and quirks, and the beginnings of what will ultimately lead up to the climactic reveal. Such scenes, where the murder mystery itself is at the forefront of the narrative, are where the film really excels.
Unfortunately, by the second half, the mystery seems to slip into the background. The characters have all been introduced, and the narrative extends beyond the home and the family itself to the greater world. At this point, the rate of revelation decreases dramatically. Breakthroughs become much less common and the story experiences an overall tonal shift. To go into more detail would reveal too much about the mystery itself, but it suffices to say that the viewer becomes much more a passive observer than they were in the first half, where intense thought and theory formulation felt actively encouraged.
Yet another of the film’s fatal flaws is that the Thrombey family feels underused in the second half of the film. The family dynamic, which is one of the most compelling features of the narrative, unfortunately takes a backseat later in the film. There are some brilliant actors (Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson) whose performances feel undercut by a lack of screen time.
As far as the ending is concerned, the crux of a mystery is the “Aha!” moment that comes at the conclusion, when every piece of the mystery is wrapped up. In this case, parts of the reveal felt a bit underwhelming. Some pieces of it seem far too obvious and some of the plot revelations feel a bit forced, cringeworthy, and so unrealistic as to be almost comical. Despite these snags, however, the payoff is deserved, well-crafted, and overall effective.
Despite some narrative hiccups and a faltering second half, there is no denying that this film is just plain fun. It is enjoyable to watch the characters interact with and play off each other. The narrative is finely crafted and engaging from start to finish. When the mystery elements work, they work incredibly well. As a viewer, it is remarkably entertaining to formulate theories and watch as they are proved and disproved throughout the natural progression of the story. So grab your notebooks and go see “Knives Out.” It is definitely a mystery worth solving.
—Staff writer Scotty Courvoisier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.