Knives Out ★★★★½

Written and directed by Rian Johnson: Reinforced by a group of renowned actors, Knives Out is distinctly clever, sassy and thrilling murder mystery, exceedingly well crafted by writer-director Rian Johnson that shows his dynamic understanding and reverence towards the genre's long history and cinematic application.

First, let's talk about the acting in this film, which is perhaps the greatest element that binds the whole thing together. Because all of the ensemble cast, no matter their lack of screentime individually, are terribly immense in each of their respective roles. To start off, an admiring word or two for our honest to God female lead Ana De Armas; far from her more lascivious characters in Knock Knock, Hands of Stone, and Blade Runner 2047, Armas is completely desexualized in her heroine role as Marta Cabrera, the nurse to the rich patriarch Harlan Thromney, and through her involvement with the event throughout, becoming the heart and soul of Knives Out. She's finally able to showcase her acting chops, strong in both dramatic and comedic material and massively likable in a very innocuous kind of way. While dragging Cabrera into the mystery party is Detective Benoit Blanc played by Daniel Craig, the American Poirot equipped with one of the most exaggerated Southern accent ever, and coupled with the right balance of being intimidating, inquisitive, erudite, eccentric but also probably half-insane (there's a hilarious extended monologue by Blanc where he obsessively talks about donuts in the midst of explaining the mystery). Mr. Craig is an absolutely juggernaut in this film that he owned every scene he's in. I mean, with that ridiculous accent and comical behavior, it's easy to be a hit or miss in an otherwise expert film, but he's charisma overload.

Aside from the two, Knives Out also benefit from the various acting power of the Thrombey family, including the commanding presence of Jamie Lee Curtis as the Thrombeys' junior matriarch and eldest child of Harlan Thrombey, Linda Drysdale, who's ice cold in heart and exterior, chewing up the scenery alongside her on-screen husband Richard Drysdale, played by Renaissance man Don Johnson. Both really has that stuck up, "thou beneath me" thing going on that the rest of the family try so hard to hide. And the latter also bounces off well against Michael Shannon's Walt Thrombey, the youngest son of Harlan Thrombey and brother to Linda; still keeping his intense and threatening stare whilst remembering the silliness that's to be projected into his character (there's an hilarious scene where he aggressively yells to Ransom about cookies and will and I was laughing nonstop for a good couple of minutes). Shannon is usually the best part of every film he's in but there are just too many noteworthy elements that equals his acting prowess here. Which could be extended to Toni Collette as Joni Thrombey, Harlan's ditsy, lifestyle guru with a company that's most likely an attempt to make fun of Gwyneth Paltrow, and narratively Harlan's daughter-in-law. I saw Hereditary for the 50th time the night before I watched Knives Out, so Collette's cringe-inducing and blonde-like behavior really made me chuckle for the whole of the film. On the other hand, the grandchildren of Harlan Thrombey include Katherine Langford (I genuinely had no idea she's Australian AND Josephine Langford's older sister) as Joni's "liberal-feminist" daughter Meg Thrombey and Jaeden Martell as Walt's alt-right son Jacob Thrombey, they're not featured as much as the elders but they're still very good where the plot wants them to (except Martell who's seemingly only there to be the butt of jokes). Chris Evans, however, plays the role of Richard and Linda's spoiled playboy son Ransom Drysdale, still sporting his Steve Rogers haircut and physique which is in deep contrast with his douchebag demeanor. He's the scum of the family and Evans uses his good looks to convey the attitude even more effectively, though I couldn't help but be amused by the fact that he's been playing the "All-American good guy" role for a number of years only to be shattered by this film, as it should be. America's Ass has never been so appropriate for his nickname here. All in all, the Thrombeys are pretty much self-serving jerks, gleefully portrayed by each of their respective actors. Additionally, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan also appears as local Detective Elliot and Trooper Wagner, while Christopher Plummer masterminds as Kev- I mean Harlan Thrombey.

Surely, it's evident from Johnson's writing that Knives Out pay respect and updates the situation and connection of the whodunit murder-mystery genre the likes of Gosford Park, Clue, Murder on the Orient Express, and Death on the Nile, while concurrently (lightly) make fun of its tropes and subverts what the audience would typically expect (double the obvious and the answer is right there all along). Knives Out has particularly devised an advantage for itself by adding and placing emphasis towards the more emotional involvement within the characters' interaction, specifically to what Marta Cabrera represent, that she's not just a disposable character in a crowded mansion full of white a-holes, but a symbol of hope, dignity and freedom where others merely seek to play by the established rules. That and the not-too-subtle yet not-too-deep discussion regarding immigration and the current state of American mentality provides a special path that's not been explored by the other mysteries of the same calibre. Fortunately, neither the political nor social commentary manage to undermine the film's total vision, and the way Johnson slips them almost subconsciously is much better than in his previous feature (I had to). Of course then, that the nature of murder, solving of mystery and search of the culprit is still as compelling as ever in regard to Knives Out. Though I'm not one to utilize the word "smart" for films like these, but it's safe to say Johnson's script is rather thoughtfully constructed, in structure, style and story, aided by its razor sharp dialogue. The plot keeps the viewer guessing and in good deal of suspense in respect to Harlan's death, with many potential assailants including Richard (his infidelity issue discovered and threatened to be forwarded to his wife by Harlan), Walt (personally fired by Harlan from their company and seemingly too agitated to be ignored), Joni (caught stealing from Harlan's wealth to provide for her daughter's tuition), Ransom (being completely cut off from Harlan's will), and even Harlan's "nice girl" nurse Marta couldn't be removed from the list of suspects. Consequently, the satisfactory result is more so chosen by Johnson out of rational decision than of pure shock, which is in this case, a predictable choice but one that strengthens the narrative.

Part of the charm of Knives Out is undeniably Rian Johnson's enthusiastic, almost geeky sense of direction that made use of every cinematic element and flair shockingly well. With an experience that remembers fondly of his days of detective noir Brick, conman comedy Brothers Bloom, time-travel thriller Looper, and mega Star Wars feature The Last Jedi, it's not too implausible to state Knives Out is his most polished and mature work to date. The actors are given the most prominent of attention with versatile material to accommodate their work, and Johnson is at his best when dealing straight with their performance than anything else, even impressive is the sheer ensemble piece that's successfully assembled. The elegant composition and smooth camerawork, primarily consisting of rapid pans and stationary shots leading to close ups, may not be stylish as visually edible, but they're very much in full service to the film's beauty of the ordinary. This is accomplished through the skillset of Johnson's regular collaborator, DP Steve Yedlin, who abandons his spellbinding and flashy shots of The Last Jedi; opting for a more straightforward, story-driven cinematographical approach that emphasizes functionality over needless decoration. That's not to say Knives Out lacks visual power, rather the opposite really, as subtle tricks of the images are just as interesting than one that has zero purpose. My favorite would have to be the scene where Benoit Blanc converses with Marta to make her his own "Watson" (as in Sherlock Holmes and John Watson) outside of the mansion's dark backyard. However, while Bob Ducsay's editing is very tight throughout, I still think there's an "overcrowded" sense that the movie could've lose a few minutes to achieve balance. For example, the interrogation sequences in the beginning runs for a bit too long.

Overall, Knives Out is purely the most entertaining and crowd-pleasing feature film (ever since Brick anyway) from Rian Johnson so far, and unexpectedly in my own personal top 10 favorites of 2019. Kudos to Johnson and his crew!

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