Knives Out

4 out of 5

Directed by: Rian Johnson

The trailers for Knives Out hyped it up as a pretty busy movie – a big cast; lots of cross-cutting and mic-drop moments; zoomy action; and many, many shots of knives from obtuse angles. Setting aside the necessity for making a trailer as flashy as possible, this is maybe also a bit of meta preview of a movie in which a lot seems to happen… and then not a lot happens. Knives Out is relatively sedate for the most part, happy to tip-toe and smile humbly when most films of this nature – ensembles; twisty-plotty; outlandish set design – would be exactly what that trailer suggests; here we get card call-outs for the various members of the Thrombley family, gathered and interviewed by police and a private detective to suss out the truth behind their famous-writer father’s suicide, but the way director Rian Johnson and editor Bob Ducsay float from these interviews to flashbacks, it’s not as punchy as the tactic typically is; we get wild camera angles and crazy noir lighting, but those angles are gracefully leaned into – not snapped into place – and the lighting is generally achieved in organic-feeling manners; speeches and speech patterns are about quirky things like donut holes, told with absurd faux-Southern accents, but we don’t dawdle on these elements like they’re hilarious revelations. Jokes aren’t mugged for the camera; the twists aren’t all saved up for last-minute gasps; the ensemble cast ends up really just being a cast, without forced starring time for each. Knives Out is a movie dressed up in and then written with modern flash and genre trappings, but actually shot and paced and told rather traditionally – squint, and it’s a PBS rebroadcast of some BBC mystery.

Which belies the utter control Johnson has over the affair, and how this translates in to all-around great performances and a 130-minute runtime that, though maybe bloated a bit, never dips in entertainment. While the movie has car chases and several whodunnit moments, it’s never in a hurry to showcase or execute these, necessarily; that dichotomy of the trailer vs. the strollingly-paced content exists throughout as a pleasant game, of sorts, mirroring recently deceased Harry Thrombley’s – Christopher Plummer’s – love of a good yarn, and his wish, on this 85th birthday, expressed to his personal nurse, Marta (Ama de Armas), to ‘go out with a bang.’ Since this is told in flashback, the film kicking off with the discovery of Thombley’s throat-slit body in a did-he-or-didn’t-he suicide, with PI Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) called in by an unknown patron to investigate something… it very much seems he got his wish, and the game is afoot.

…Until, like, 30 minutes in, the actuality is lain out pretty cleanly to us, one of several ways Johnson dodges expectations and the norm, while – again – also playing things rather straight and clean. It’s an incredibly charming path to follow the film along, and the actors, cast in various archetypes roles as the tuff-as-nails business lady (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the rebellious grandson (Chris Evans) and the smarmy stepson (Don Johnson) and the aloof daughter (Teri Collette) and fastidious son (Michael Shannon), are all, also, clearly enjoying their part in the shenanigans, but just like those initial title card callouts give way to rather plaintive interviews, all of these character templates – drabbed in wonderful details that are never really spoken to – exist fairly on the edges of the movie as flavoring, and not as Big Name Guest Stars. Similarly, the story is total pastiche – old rich man kicks the bucket and the greedy family is all suspected of having instigated the deed – but even with the occasional lampshades of that, Rian doesn’t play it as parody.

We end up focusing on more of a whydunnit than who-, and Johnson drops noirish knife-twistings along the way to keep us invested in that why, all the while very much allowing us to suspect that something else is probably going on… but, y’know, even if there isn’t, the film is so self assured and so damn calm in that assurance that it doesn’t matter. If that’s all there was to it, Knives Out would for a pretty perfect trilogy of genre tweaks with Brick and Brothers Bloom. Alas, that’s not all there is to it, and I don’t just mean in terms of final-act reveals.

The other piece of this is a political one: Ama de Armas as the foreign nurse with the heart of gold vs. the white family of casual racists who ping-pong every single version of microaggressions and inherited biases we’ve been chatting about more publicly the last several years, and that people of color – or of any non-white, non-heterosexual makeup – have certainly been aware of forever. When this exists at the edges of the movie, such as each family member citing Marta’s birthplace differently, it’s a good ding; when the plot ends up revolving around Marta’s fear over her mother’s potential deportation, and there’s an unabashed conversation parroting Trump-era “this is my country”isms, it’s not especially clever, and becomes rather distracting. There’s the sense that the takes-its-time pace and underplaying of cheek is actually to buffer this effect; the runtime bloat to which I referred would be fine, except that some of it is dedicated to account for this extra component, and so the movie sags a bit, and then splays some dignity-infused bits and pieces during those sags, weighing them down that much more. I trust Rian as being smart enough to craft a movie that was more directly one thing or another – a mystery or political commentary – but in this case, it felt like Knives Out really “wanted” to be the former, and then got injected with some of the latter, and it’s a bit shameful. “Well-intentioned,” perhaps, but unsmoothes the otherwise calm and collected cool of the flick.

That’s mainly a caveat to what I otherwise found to be a very sharp, very purposeful, very fun movie, though I am very, very white and privileged, so the above doesn’t unsettle me as much as it maybe should, or as much as it may for others, understandably affecting their take on the film, and Johnson’s potential intentions with it.