Every year there are a few TIFF titles that have everyone buzzing, and those tickets become nearly impossible to get our popcorn-greasy hands on. This year, those titles were Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Knives Out. I saw all 3 because I am very, very fortunate, but I was the only Asshole to see Knives Out, which also means that I have a pretty big responsibility to get this right.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a highly successful mystery writer. His family gathers under the roof of his mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday, after which, they all retire to bed. The next morning, Harlan is found on his sofa with his throat slit. Initially ruled a suicide, both the local police and a private investigator are suspicious. As they start interviewing the family it becomes clear that each and every one of them has a motive, and that they’re all pretty enthusiastic about pointing the finger at someone else.
First, let’s get the cast of characters out of the way.
Marta (Ana de Armas) is Harlon’s nurse, and the last to see him alive. She put him to bed after administering his meds. As an outsider, she becomes P.I. Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) go-to source for all the family secrets.
Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlon’s daughter, a successful businesswoman. She is married to Richard (Don Johnson) who is perhaps a bit of a leech. They have a son, Ransom (Chris Evans) who is way too old to never have worked a day in his life. He is supported by Grandpa Harlan because, though rebellious, Harlan sees a lot of himself in Ransom.
Joni (Toni Collette) was married to Harlan’s now-deceased son. She and daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are still quite close to the family, and are supported by Harlan. Joni is a bit of a free-spirit and doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the more conservative clan, though she may not realize it. She’s also at the other end of the political spectrum from brother-in-law Richard, and of course the two butt heads.
Walt (Michael Shannon) runs Harlan’s publishing empire, though with one hand tied behind his back as Harlan has no interest in selling movie rights or any other of Walt’s money-making suggestions. His wife Donna flies under the radar while his teenage son Jacob is a known weirdo and gossiped about as the family masturbator (does every family have one?).
That’s it. Those were all the people in the house the night Harlan died. It’s up to Blanc (a Poirot type, and not a little flamboyant) and police detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) to sift through the pieces to try to assemble the puzzle. One helpful hint: nurse Marta is incapable of lying without barfing. It’s a tell that’s going to come in handy.
The movie is a lot of fun. First, there’s the fact that Harlan himself wrote murder mysteries. His house is full of mementos and artifacts – a display of knives behind the interview chair feels particularly ominous. But the ensemble cast makes it what it is. The script feeds them all some pretty snappy lines. I really loved Lakeith Stanfield’s referring to the Thrombey mansion as a “Clue board” – thanks for that, Rian. In fact, though the trailer bills Knives Out as a “whodunnit like no one has ever dunnit,” the truth is, plenty of murder mysteries came before it, and Johnson is not afraid to reference them. Johnson is a movie lover, a genuine movie lover, which makes his own movies so goddamn much fun to watch. He’s winking at us from the director’s chair. Going to a Rian Johnson movie is like taking my 5 year old nephew to a frozen yogurt place. He fills his little bowl with the first flavour, then a second, and probably a third. His eyes are bigger than his little belly. But he’s just getting started. Next come the toppings, which are his favourite part: cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, bigs of sugary cereal, broken up pretzels, strawberry flavoured boba, chunks of chocolate bar, pieces of cookie, bits of brownie. Next come syrups. Just one? Ha. That’s for amateurs. Then you cover it in whipped cream. Then a few more sprinkles, for the colour. More is more. Every spoonful digs up a new layer of goodness. He (both my nephew and Johnson) delights in every bite. There’s a sumptuous deliciousness to Rian Johnson’s films. And I don’t even worry about the belly ache: Rian Johnson is the one time you can eat every last bite and you never quite get enough.
Which is not to say this movie is unsatisfying. Johnson elevates the whodunnit by throwing in timely social elements that take a bite out of the wealth and class systems that literally allow people like this to get away with murder.