Killer Thriller 'Knives Out' Is Surprisingly Subversive — And Comfortingly Familiar
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Although best known for directing "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the writer-director Rian Johnson has long been a fan of murder mysteries. His 2005 debut "Brick" was a film noir set in a contemporary American high school. His new movie "Knives Out" is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with an ensemble that includes Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: As someone who's devoured more than his fair share of Agatha Christie, I have long been saddened by Hollywood's general neglect of the classical detective story - the kind of clever parlor trick entertainment where a murder is committed in a remote country house and suspicion falls on a closed circle of suspects. Every so often, a director will put his unique spin on the genre, as Robert Altman did with "Gosford Park" and Quentin Tarantino did with "The Hateful Eight." Kenneth Branagh is presently directing and starring in a new wave of Hercule Poirot adaptations, though his middling take on "Murder On The Orient Express" didn't leave me wondering who done it so much as, why bother?
But no filmmaker has done more to revive the spirit of the form or made it seem more rife with possibilities than Rian Johnson has with "Knives Out." This deliriously entertaining comic thriller brings together an all-star cast and an ingeniously plotted crime story whose every twist catches you by surprise. But it also does something more. It takes the genre often dismissed as creaky or cozy and uses it to say something powerful and urgent about contemporary class inequality and the moral rot at the heart of this large and obscenely wealthy family.
Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a best-selling mystery novelist who is already dead at the start. Someone slit his throat in the middle of the night, and it was almost certainly a member of his family, all of whom were staying at his ramshackle Victorian house for his 85th birthday party. Johnson delights in playing out the usual whodunit conventions, whether he's drawing out the piercing scream of the housekeeper who discovers Harlan's body or lining up the suspects as they're interviewed by two police detectives, played by LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan. But things really start cooking when a Southern-accented Daniel Craig shows up as Benoit Blanc, a famous private detective who is conducting his own investigation into Harlan's death. In one scene, Harlan's daughter Linda, a splendidly biting Jamie Lee Curtis, tries to find out who hired Blanc and why.
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JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (As Linda Drysdale) Mr. Blanc, I know who you are. I read your profile in the New Yorker, I found it delightful. I just buried my 85-year-old father who committed suicide. Why are you here?
DANIEL CRAIG: (As Benoit Blanc) I'm here at the behest of a client.
CURTIS: (As Linda Drysdale) Who?
CRAIG: (As Benoit Blanc) I cannot say, but let me assure you this. My presence will be ornamental. You will find me a respectful, quiet, passive observer of the truth.
CHANG: Nearly everyone in the family was financially dependent on Harlan. And as the actors play them, they're an amusingly loathsome, scheming bunch. Linda has a philandering husband, played by an oily Don Johnson, and a black-sheep son, Ransom, played by a cocky Chris Evans. Ransom had a combative but genuinely close relationship with his late grandfather, which is more than can be said for the other members of the family. They include Michael Shannon as Walt, who ran his father Harlan's publishing firm, and Toni Collette as Harlan's widow daughter-in-law, Joni, a social media influencer with a Goop-inspired lifestyle brand.
But the most memorable character by far and the one who emerges as the true protagonist is Marta Cabrera, Harlan's personal nurse superbly played by the Cuban actress Ana de Armas. Marta appears to have been Harlan's only true friend. She's far more heartbroken over his death than any of his relatives, who keep telling her they see her as part of the family, even though none of them can remember exactly which Latin American country she immigrated from. Blanc immediately sees her as a potential ally and enlists her help in solving the mystery, sensing that she knows more about Harlan and his family's secrets than she may be letting on.
The steady stream of laughs and wink-wink (ph) genre references in "Knives Out" might make it seem, at first, like an arch, postmodern send-up. But the movie is too well constructed, too full of clever red herrings and breathtaking surprises to be reduced to a mere spoof. This isn't the first time Rian Johnson has shown off his flair for intricate plotting, as he did in his time travel thriller "Looper" and in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." That blockbuster was attacked by some fans for, among other things, its racially diverse casting. You can't help but wonder if those bigoted reactions stung Johnson into centering his new movie around a working-class, Spanish-speaking immigrant whose competence and decency utterly shamed the wealthy, white family that employs her. The pleasures of "Knives Out" are both comfortingly familiar and surprisingly subversive. Even after the murderer's identity has been revealed, it builds to what may be the single-most satisfying closing shot I've seen this year. I won't say more, but it's a killer.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Edward Norton, who wrote, directed and stars in the new film noir "Motherless Brooklyn" based on the Jonathan Lethem novel. Norton plays a private detective with Tourette's syndrome up against powerful real estate developers in New York. Norton was inspired to make the film in part because his grandfather was an idealistic real estate developer who built a diverse community where Norton grew up. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram.
I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.