‘Knives Out’ is a fucking blast

The Knives Out marketing campaign has honed in brilliantly on all its best elements. Full cast photos like this become stilted family portraits. Images courtesy Lionsgate.

9/10 I had the chance to see Knives Out for free and couldn’t wait for the chance to pay to see it again. It is so much fun. It’s a kind of fun I’d almost given up on having in a movie theater.

Knives Out opens the morning after the apparent suicide of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy mystery novelist who celebrated his 85th birthday the previous evening with his entire extended family. The death seems cut-and-dry, but with Harlan’s $60 million fortune and publishing empire hanging in the balance, private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) sees a kaleidoscope of possible motives for son-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), his son Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), widowed daughter-in-law Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) or youngest son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) to have done Harlan in, and all of them immediately start lying. Blanc’s only assistance comes from Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse from a non-descript South American country, who suffers from a condition that causes her to vomit uncontrollably when she tells a lie.

Everybody in Knives Out is having so much fun! Daniel Craig is having a blast. After famously losing his smile as James Bond – look how he glowers in the new trailer for No Time to Die – Craig has spent his time working with auteurs who let him do ridiculous accents. He spends Knives Out doing history’s worst Foghorn Leghorn impression and is just having the time of his life.

Chris Evans is having an amazing time. He brings that winning Captain America charm to a vicious, spiteful character, like a public school teacher on holiday finally allowed to drink and curse in public, making his stellar performances as the straight-edged hero seem bored by comparison.

There’s also a heavy focus on the ornate, off-putting web of knives in Harlan’s foyer, both for flavorful set design, symbolic usage and background use as a big, sharp target that characters can find themselves at the center of.

Writer/director/producer Rian Johnson is having a ton of fun. The absolute glee of the film is woven into the script and shots. This was to be his next project after 2012’s Looper, but obviously he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to make a Star Wars film when that was offered, so production on it didn’t start until 2018, and it’s so easy to tell how auteur-driven the entire thing is from top to bottom.

You can tell right from the cast list. Hollywood is a small world that necessarily stretches itself as thin as possible, and you can only pull this kind of cast – James Bond and Captain America in non-starring roles, Collette fresh off a star-making performance in Hereditary, Jamie Lee Curtis and gems in minor roles like Shannon and Lakeith Stanfield – when people know they’re going to enjoy the production.

Johnson is right back to making the exact movie he wants to make, undeterred by his brush with fandom in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. They’re apparently still not over it – fandom is a petty and pitiable beast – but it seems to have had little effect at the box office, as all boycotts do.

Star Wars fans my have tried to follow him, but Knives Out has no fandom, which makes it an exceedingly rare experience in modern moviegoing. It feels in so many ways like a movie from 20 years ago – the 130 minute runtime, a perfectly reasonable number, seems meaty and indulgent for a non-franchise offering. The complete lack of digital effects and trickery seems outlandish in an era of digitally recreated faces and some sort of space battle in every other blockbuster.

Even the genres are of a bygone era – many tears have been shed in recent years over the death of the Hollywood comedy, which is theorized to be due to the importance of international dollars and comedy being a highly cultural thing that doesn’t translate well overseas. With social media driving pervasive paranoia about spoilers, mostly for popular dramas that don’t really have secrets to spoil as much as they simply have endings, a genuine who-done-it mystery is unheard of. As Martin Scorsese himself is pushed to streaming, Knives Out is the kind of auteur-driven film that was supposed to be dying.

The set looks ancient, like the kind of place a murder mystery would take place and where a mystery writer would love to live.  “[Harlan] lived in a Clue board,” is even said out loud at one point.

The biggest event movies every year for the past several have been franchise films, less event movies and more nexuses of popular media that takes place in the theater. That’s dismissing some wonderful work that does take place on these films, but they don’t pull massive audiences because they look good, they pull massive audiences because Disney and its competitors have successfully cultivated and trained those markets. They’re not event films for movie fans, they’re event films for fans of particular multimedia characters. Knives Out is an event movie purely for movie fans, the type that’s becoming a precious rare thing.

I guess not everyone is having fun. Ana de Armas, who we end up spending most of our time with, plays the straightman to the rest of the cast, does most of the heavy lifting and, of course, spews most of the vomit. She’s surely having as much fun as her castmates offscreen, but keeping the majority of the plot’s secrets and with the threat of deportation leveraged against her, she doesn’t seem to be.

That’s who isn’t having a blast watching Knives Out – Hispanic viewers, for whom seeing their worst and most plausible nightmares play out onscreen is, understandably, not that much fun. Johnson leans heavily into the permanent state of controversy around the Trump presidency, with an aggressive sense of humor that’s another rare sight in modern movies. Political arguments deflect the plot, and there’s a running gag of Walt’s son Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell) being a lonesome alt-right gremlin, though this is sadly never realized in discussion – Martell plays him with a kind of self-aware shame that takes away from the character. It’s a difficult, guilty fun when 70,000 migrant children have been taken into U.S. custody this year, and it’s hard to say Johnson didn’t cross a line here, though it was probably his intent to do so.

See this movie as soon as possible with the biggest audience you can find – there’s a massive hole in the release schedule between now and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so Friday and Saturday night crowds shouldn’t really dwindle for another month or so. Take the entire family, spring for concessions and just have yourself a damn good time.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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