Knives Out (*****) is a donut inside of a donut hole

Knives Out – 2019

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer

A mere two years after the controversial 8th installment of the Skywalker saga, Rian Johnson has accomplished something more astonishing by bringing back the Whodunit. Knives Out is a great film wrapped inside of a mystery that plays dumb until you realize you’re in the third act and the goal has been moved on the viewer. It is a delightful surprise that bounces along, almost carelessly. Almost.

The film starts with the apparent suicide of the Thrombey family patriarch, Harlan (Plummer). A week later, the family is gathered at his home to be questioned by Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig). Why is Blanc here? Someone anonymously sent him an envelope full of cash along with an article about Harlan’s death.

The questioning of the family quickly reveals that the family is filled with motives. Almost as quickly, another answer comes to light. If you’re thinking the mystery is solved in the first act, you’ve got another think coming.

A movie with a cast this big filled with name actors almost always lets them flail as scenery-chewing caricatures when it comes to the script. Fortunately, Johnson is accomplished at playing actors and characters against type. He also picked some tremendous character actors to guide his excellent script.

Curtis, Shannon, Johnson, Evans and Collette are all excellent covering the basis of family dysfunction. There is a moment between Plummer and de Armas that is heartbreakingly sweet, almost worth the price of admission.

The film is dependent on the relationship between de Armas and the rest of the cast. As the outsider and an immigrant, she is belittled cleverly by her “family,” not even invited to the funeral. Blanc detects her inability to lie and cajoles her into becoming his “Watson.” Their lack of chemistry is delightful and really enlivens the bulk of the film.

As Blanc, Daniel Craig is a mixture of off kilter phrases and obtuse detection. He’s like Columbo with a southern accent. He’s “CSI KFC” according to grandson Ransom (Evans with a wicked snark). It is a good time following him around as he notices some things, completely misses others and waits at the end of the mystery for the solution to arrive.

My one regret is the relative underuse of Stanfield as Det. Elliot. His role the guy who’s next to the real detective limits him. He’s a great actor and it is nice to have him in any capacity, I just kept expecting they’d give him something more substantial.

This is one of the best films of the year. It’s also one of the best mystery films I remember seeing. My daughter solved it about midway through. She just wasn’t sure how she’d solved it until Johnson let us all see. All of the pieces come together in your head just after he allows you to understand them. I am happy to have witnessed this remarkable feat. I look forward to what comes next from his creative mind.

(***** out of *****)

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