With the recent success of READY OR NOT, it’s not surprising that a competing studio would come out with its own comedy-thriller. KNIVES OUT raises the stakes big time with a much larger production budget, an all-star cast in front of the camera and a STAR WARS director behind.
Harlan Thrombey (Oscar® winner Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS) is a hugely successful murder-mystery writer. For his 85th birthday, his family throws him a party at his rambling house nestled in the New England countryside but not everyone is celebrating that night because Harlan has decided to use the occasion to tell his family that he’s written them all out of his will. Affected by the news is his daughter, Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis, the HALLOWEEN franchise; TRUE LIES; TRADING PLACES); her leech of a husband, Richard (Don Johnson, TV’s MIAMI VICE); their playboy trust fund baby, Ransom (Chris Evans, the AVENGERS franchise; BEFORE WE GO); Harlan’s eldest son, Walt (Michael Shannon, THE CURRENT WAR; THE SHAPE OF WATER; ELVIS & NIXON); Harlan’s late son’s widow, Joni (Toni Collette, HEREDITY; UNLOCKED); and a few others including his white nationalist grandson, Jacob (Jaden Martell, the IT films; ST. VINCENT). Also present at the party is Harlan’s personal nurse and perhaps his only friend, Marta Cabrere (Ana de Armas, BLADE RUNNER 2049; WAR DOGS), who is a DACA Dreamer originally from somewhere in South America. (There’s a running joke throughout the film about which country she’s from.) After Harlan is found dead with his throat slit in the morning, Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU; THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB; GET OUT; SHORT TERM 12) is called in to investigate. From blood splatter analysis of the scene, it certainly looks like a suicide but private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, LOGAN LUCKY; SPECTRE; SKYFALL) isn’t convinced. He’s also been called in by an unknown person to assist Lt. Elliott.
Writer-director Rian Johnson (STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI) has created an up-to-the minute take on murder-mysteries that both pays homage to Agatha Christie and TV murder-mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, and takes more than a few swipes at Trump’s America. Unfortunately, KNIVES OUT is neither as witty nor as funny as it thinks it is or as it could have been. The problem with many of these star-studded whodunits is that the actors barely get enough screen time to warrant their presence and KNIVES OUT is no different. Once Elliott and Blanc finish interviewing each of the children and revealing their motivations for wanting to see their meal ticket dead, the story then zeroes in on just a few characters and shunts everyone else off to the side. When you have the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette in your cast, you should keep them front and center.
While the performances are generally good all around, one has to wonder how many times Daniel Craig is going to put on a southern fried drawl. I can appreciate that he wants to distance himself from his James Bond persona but doing the same accent in two films in short order is not going to get him any new fans among Hollywood’s casting agents. One the other hand, casting Chris Evans as Don Johnson’s son was inspired as Johnson was the Evans of his day – pretty to look at but not a great actor.
As I was watching the film though, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better it would have been had it been directed by someone like Steven Soderbergh. The camera angles would have been more imaginative and the story would have been more suspenseful. Under Rian Johnson’s hand though, KNIVES OUT is rather bland. Competent but bland.
I know I’m in the minority here as both critics and audiences are loving this film. Sometimes we critics have to walk a lonely road. KNIVES OUT is fine for a night out but it’s not great cinema.
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