‘Knives Out’ Review: Rian Johnson’s Wildly Enjoyable Case Study on Privilege

By Andrew Rodden

Rian Johnson delivers one of the most fun and socio-politically conscious films of the year with his 2019 murder mystery “Knives Out.” The star-studded cast of this modern retelling of the classic “whodunit” murder mystery is packed with well-known names like Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, and even Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It is delightfully obvious that the actors had a blast playing their both goofy and dangerous characters, and the film makes it easy to laugh along, enjoying the passing scenes. 

“Knives Out” is both an homage and a deconstruction of the “whodunit” murder mystery genre, harkening back to films like “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) and “Clue” (1985). One of the characters in “Knives Out” even compares their twisty-turny family mansion to the murder-weapon-filled board game, which is one of the more dated references in the film. But Johnson brings a modern spin to this old-fashioned story by including references to Instagram influencing, questionable politics on Twitter, and the snobbiness of The New Yorker Magazine. Though a bit heavy-handed with its inclusion of such references, this film succeeds at situating itself in 2019. 

The plot is a puzzle without an easy answer: it thickened and thinned throughout the whole film. When I thought the story would turn one way, it took an exit I didn’t even know was on the map. Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study the morning after his 85th birthday party. Local detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) deems the death an obvious suicide. However, Benoit Blanc, a Louisianan celebrity detective (Daniel Craig, in one of the funniest performances of the year), has a hunch that foul play is afoot. He elicits the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse — who is so pure of soul that she becomes physically ill whenever she tells a lie — and together they sift through the mismatched stories of the Thrombey family. 

Each character is given a well-defined schtick. Harlan’s first daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a “self-made” real estate mogul, who, by the way, established her business with a small million-dollar loan from her father. Linda’s husband (Don Johnson) helps Linda out with the business, but is also cheating on her. Her brother, Walt (Michael Shannon), acts as the CEO of Harlan’s publishing company, and he plays a curmudgeon who wears a scraggly beard. However unique, each remaining member of the Thrombey family is connected by a single trait: their privileged assholery. They have ridden their patriarch’s coattails their entire lives, and when the ride is cut short, their true characters bleed through their candied-apple exterior, some more rotten than others.  

The movie provides surprisingly biting commentary on the behavior of the extremely wealthy, demonstrating the disconnect the family has with the world outside the family mansion. The Thrombey’s political small talk is painfully akin to the conversations you had with your great-grandma at Thanksgiving dinner. These conversations reveal the Thrombey’s shallow worldview, insulated within the bubble of the free ride they’ve been receiving. Aside from Linda, they’ve never had to work, and they’ll stop at nothing to keep it that way. 

Similarly, audiences should stop at nothing to see this movie, preferably at the theater. “Knives Out” is a perfect watch as the year dwindles, as it’s all too relevant during this family-filled holiday season.  

One thought on “‘Knives Out’ Review: Rian Johnson’s Wildly Enjoyable Case Study on Privilege

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