In giving the new critically acclaimed murder mystery “Knives Out” a middling review, I am clearly in the minority.
The film currently has a 97% Rotten Tomatoes score, and the American Film Institute, National Board of Review and Time Magazine each included it on their lists of the best films of 2019. It is about as beloved a film as you will find these days.
But after watching this thing twice, I still don’t fully understand the adoration. It isn’t that “Knives Out” isn’t entertaining – even delightfully so- at times. It’s just that it seems ever so slight and not quite like the sum of its truly tremendous parts.
“Knives Out” is impeccably acted, beautifully designed and quite fun at times. It is also more than a little enamored with its own cleverness – a self-love that I’m not entirely sure it deserves.
But you’ve got to give kudos to a film that has almost singlehandedly revived interest in the “whodunnit” genre popularized by Agatha Christie and her ilk. And director Rian Johnson, who also wrote the script, has crafted a film that would likely make Ms. Christie smile.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead. His family, visiting his mansion for his 85th birthday party, are suspects in his murder. And, as the tagline for the film says, “Hell, any one of them could have done it.”
Consider Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) who is more than a little miffed about being cut out of his dad’s publishing business. Or Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), the son-in-law who is trying to keep his affair a secret. Or daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) whose double-dipping into Harlan’s checkbook was severely punished right before the crime was committed.
Good thing legendary detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the case.
If the plot hasn’t changed much since the Agatha Christie days, Johnson seems to realize that the appeal of these tales comes from a murderer’s row of compelling characters. And they really don’t come any more memorable than in “Knives Out.”
We’ll start with Blanc, a surefire contender for the best original film character of 2019. Craig doesn’t get the chance to cut loose very often, but he seems to be having the time of his life getting lost in Blanc’s southern drawl. There’s something innately charming about how the good detective will indulge a silly Slinky reference or mispronounce “squabbles” as “squibbles”. Seeing his very obvious excitement while piecing together the case is even better.
If I had my issues with “Knives Out”, I never had any problems with Blanc or Craig. The character is thoroughly delightful, and the announcement that Johnson is planning on making more “Benoit Blanc mysteries” is genuinely exciting.
The Thrombeys are played by a murderer’s row of character actors and, if they aren’t all given a lot to do, the actors’ energy and sense of fun is consistently delightful. Bonus points to Johnson for subverting many of his actors’ screen images – from casting “Captain America” Chris Evans as a smugly selfish jerk to casting Shannon as a weak-willed coward.
Plummer, as always, is excellent and delivers the gravitas the film needs. And the spot-on casting continues into the smallest roles – from the great M. Emmet Walsh as the mansion’s caretaker to legendary film director and Muppeteer Frank Oz (the man behind Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster and Yoda) as Harlan’s lawyer.
In an age where special effects have all but done away with the need to shoot on location, there is something delightfully tactile about the mansion set that production designer David Crank and his team created. Full of taxidermied animals, secret passageways, automatons and knife sculptures, it is consistently delightful to look at. If Wes Anderson designed an escape room, this is probably what it would look like.
The script provides a few good zingers – Blanc says a will-reading is as exciting as “a community theater production of a tax return”- and the first two acts click along nicely. But the plot gets jumbled and unnecessarily complicated in the third act.
You’ll probably spend some time asking yourself if the big reveal at the end makes sense. Let me help you out: It doesn’t.
If “Knives Out” succeeds as entertainment, it struggles as the social commentary Johnson wants it to be. References to Trump’s America come out of nowhere, and the message never really resonates as anything more than “White people are the worst.” I’m not going to argue with that thesis, but I’ll be honest: I wanted a little more nuance.
Ana De Armas is given a star-making role, but doesn’t quite have the charisma to pull it off. A tasteless joke is repeated over and over and never gets any funnier.
But as a cleverer-than-most mainstream blockbuster, “Knives Out” (rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references and drug material) mostly works. It’s the sort of thing that will be replayed endlessly on TNT in a few years from now, and I will likely take the time to watch it each time I encounter it.
But let’s not pretend that basic cable isn’t where “Knives Out” belonged all along. It’s never quite as smart as it thinks it is or as entertaining as it deserves to be. It is not best-of-the-year quality, by a longshot.
Ultimately, “Knives Out” is a bit like the automatons hanging around Harlan’s mansion: It is technically flawless and seems almost human at times. But, when you open it up, you realize that it’s nothing more than a cold, heartless machine.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.