jack’s review published on Letterboxd:
BRIEF NOTES: some spoilers, but they're mostly describing simple events (not the entire movie - i dont spoil the ending or anything surrounding that) so unless you dont want to hear that small stuff, feel free to read on!
Whether it’s destiny or unjustifiable anger, Rian Johnson has become one of the most talked about filmmakers of the past several years; it’s arguable that the Johnson discussion began in 2012 with “Looper,” the science fiction- action film that fulfilled our deepest, wildest dreams: seeing how Joseph Gordon-Levitt would look if he had Bruce Willis’ nose. Joking aside, that film proved to worldwide audiences that Johnson was a unique and interesting voice to keep an eye out for. Then it was announced that Johnson, keeping the science fiction trend going, was to helm the eighth episode of Star Wars. The film, entitled “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” split fans and caused such a controversial uproar with critics and audiences: some were praising the subversive and direct change the franchise was enduring and others found that he single-handedly ruined the beloved franchise.
And now, it’s 2019, and people are still asking for Johnson’s head on a platter; the comments haven’t stopped, the jokes haven’t stopped, and Johnson, now abandoned by every dork with a lightsaber and a “May the Force Be With You” tattoo, is fucking pissed off. Johnson is sick and tired of the constant complaints that he’s ruined that franchise and he’s tired of being called a hack and it shows in his latest film, “Knives Out.” If there was a perfect film to follow “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Johnson made the perfect choice to write and direct “Knives Out:” a murder mystery Comedy that hearkens back to the days of whodunits and Agatha Christie novels. But besides being one of the best films of the year, it proves one major thing to film audiences: Rian Johnson is not going anywhere because you bitch and complain.
The film opens with Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a prominent mystery and thriller novelist, lying dead in his study, a slash across his neck just hours after his 85th birthday party. His family – which includes eldest daughter Linda and her husband Richard (Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), his eldest son’s widow Joni and her daughter Meg (Toni Collette and Katharine Langsford) and his youngest son, Walt, and his wife Donna and son Jacob(Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome, and Jaedan Martell) - is in shock: their father’s death, now assumed to be a suicide, came out of the blue. He never showed signs of wanting to end his life but have begun to come to terms with this. But as much as the police tells the family that it’s suicide, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) - whose appearance during the police interviews with the family is largely unknown – smells something wrong: it’s murder!
And so, “Knives Out” kicks into high gear and what follows is perhaps the biggest fuck you to everyone who doubted Johnson after “The Last Jedi” (and you shouldn’t have: he’s a perfectly capable filmmaker and a damn good one, at that); “Knives Out” is one of the best examples of 2019 popcorn Cinema, while offering one of the most thought-provoking and energetic pieces of fiction we’ve gotten yet. It’s also probably the worthiest film of getting this much acclaimed because of everything the pop culture public threw at Johnson; but this is clear that Johnson didn't make "Knives Out" to prove a point: this is a film for him, his project, his showcase of skill, and his ultimate creation.
After our initial briefing of each adult member of the family, Blanc interjects each briefing and begins to orchestrate pieces of the puzzle he's already gathered: someone murdered Harlan and even worse, the person who did it was his within his familial circle. Johnson, rather cheekily in a roughly 20-minute segment, unravels reasons why certain members would have the urge of killing Harlan: Linda, Joni, and Walt were recently cut off from their father's supply of wealth for various reasons and Harlan recently discovered that Richard was cheating on Linda with a much younger woman. From those brief, yet important details, Blanc can conclude - from these details and other pieces surrounding Harlan's death - that someone had their hands in that cookie jar. Which sets the film in motion, like the classic game of Clue: who killed Harlan Thrombey with the knife in the study?
And who seems to be our lead? It's not any of the Thrombey clan or Benoit Blanc, the detective: it's Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan's nurse and closest friend, whom he treated as one of his own. It's not entirely known, until the movie reaches its midway point, that Marta's involvement may be more than we initially thought and the remaining families' opinion of her beings to waver; this is where "Knives Out" finds its purpose: besides being the clever mystery Johnson crafts, "Knives Out" becomes a clear (and unsubtle, unfortunately) commentary on the climate of modern day America and uses Marta and the Thrombey clan to convey this message. This is perhaps the only major flaw I can point out with "Knives Out" (and it's a rather distracting flaw): Johnson got too tongue-n-cheek with its blatant message of modern day American climate.
The younger Thrombey clan - through dialogue and camera placement - are easily interpreted as some sort of a parody on Trump arrogance and belief: perceive yourself into thinking you're something you're not. The film reaches a point where Harlan's will is read and surprisingly, Marta gets everything - from the house, to the riches, and the selling rights to Harlan's work - and the family, who once considered her family and an important member of their clan, instantly turns on her and calls her countless foul names and believes her to have been sleeping with Harlan and tricking him into leaving everything to her. Clearly that's not the case and clearly Johnson therefore alludes that Marta represents the working class, particularly people who've immigrated to the United States in hopes for a better life. And as we all know (since it's everywhere: social media, television, newspapers), the current political climate for this topic is a rocky one and Johnson observes this: Marta is the representation of exactly what these people are: good, hardworking, and honorable people. I suppose the problem I have with it all is how unsubtle the commentary is; Johnson literally uses the camera to symbolize this and it just feels rather "off" and perhaps it was off-putting just because some of the unsubtle nature of the film feels rather strange since other moments are subtly handled. I can imagine my opinion will change as I get more adjusted to the film as it gets its wider release, but for now, it's off-putting.
What I find absolutely incredible about these performers is how no one ever seems to stand out (although I could name certain performances that manage to be incredibly impressive - Chris Evans, in particular...), but each individual is phenomenal in their own way, at the top of their game, and somehow, each performer works together in providing the other (and themselves) in giving said great performance. As much as this is a loving tribute to murder mystery films and the novels of Agatha Christie, "Knives Out" is very much a character piece and without the diverse set of characters - the Louisiana detective, the loving nurse, a character called a Nazi for his beliefs, and a social media guru, just to name a few - it wouldn't really stand out as being as great as it is; it's very clear that Johnson took great liberties in creating these characters and their back stories and such and without that, "Knives Out," as much as it's a clear tribute to everything mentioned above, it probably wouldn't stand out as being anything more than a replica of the past.
I doubt we'll see a more entertaining (not to mention a more entertainingly timely) film released this year. I think it's very fitting that this is a Rian Johnson film, especially a Rian Johnson film released after the tidal wave controversy that was "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," that showcases that Johnson isn't anything like social media has portrayed him to be; in fact, "Knives Out" proves that Johnson is at the height of his prowess as a filmmaker and his films - whether controversial or not, simplistic or ambitious - will be some of the most highly discussed films of the year they're released.