Razor sharp and deceptively deep, Knives Out is a refreshing update on the Whodunit genre
By Chase Hutchinson
It is a rare thing to update and improve upon a genre without falling into tired cliches. Yet, the most recent film from Rian Johnson does just that.
Written and directed by Johnson, who previously directed a little film called Star Wars: The Last Jedi, this film centers around the fallout following the death of the patriarch of the wealthy Thrombey family.
Harlan Thrombey, played delicately by an always brilliant Christopher Plummer, is a famous writer who has accrued a fortune through a long, successful career.
Suspicions are raised when the famous investigator Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig, shows up on the scene to go back through the night he died to determine if one of his family killed him for their own interests.
This may sound like a story you've heard before and the film knows it. There are many winking references to previous forays into the genre and its tongue is firmly in cheek which ensures the entire affair has a jovial tone.
However, what sets this film apart is that the protagonist is not who you might expect. Rather than focusing on any of the family, the story instead is seen through the eyes of another.
That person is Marta Cabrera, played compellingly by Ana de Armas, who is a live in nurse, confidant, and friend to the elderly Harlan in what ends up being his final days.
The shift to her being the center of the story and driving force for the plot is a bold one by Johnson as it upends the expectation that the Thrombey family is what the story will be about.
Rather, it is about Marta being dragged into the deceit and lies of said family all because she was a caring force in their father's life.
That is what elevates the narrative beyond just a slick mystery with charm to spare into a more deep reflection on wealth and power.
Marta has more knowledge and understanding of the family dynamics of the house despite being an outsider who comes from a more relatable, humble background.
This characterization not only makes her more relatable to the audience, it also creates an interesting juxtaposition between her kindness and the ruthlessness of the family she has been hired by.
All of this is done with a light touch and doesn't take away from what is still a humorous romp of a good time at its center. The mystery is consistently engaging and left me guessing from beginning to end.
That the narrative has more on its mind makes it not only more substantive but left me genuinely moved at brief moments when it burrowed down into the emotional core of the story.
All the ensemble cast around Marta are fantastic in their own right. Although with a cast including LaKeith Stanfield, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans this doesn't come as much of a surprise.
All these parts serve to make a compelling and entertaining whole that makes few if any missteps.
The film does push the PG-13 rating to the limits at times but it never gets out of hand as Johnson has firm control over the narrative.
There are moments that border on absurdity such as what may have been an unnecessary car chase but the film is self-aware enough to acknowledge this with what may have been my favorite joke of the film.
Even as it isn't too self-serious, the jokes themselves have more to say than one may initially realize. A recurring gag is the family wrongly identifying where Marta is from. Is it Ecuador? Is it Uruguay?
The joke comes not at the expense of Marta but at the expense of the family. It speaks to their privileged ignorance, something even the more supposedly liberal-minded members of the family take place in.
It is, therefore, a glorious and intentional story of schadenfreude to see the family have to face their failings all under the auspices of a well-crafted murder mystery.
This isn't to say the film is in any way pretentious or is better than the genre it is operating in.
Rather, it leans into the genre by putting a delightful twist on the formula that not only had me engaged but with the final shot also surprisingly reflective on the dynamics of power that it expertly skewered.
This rare updating of the genre and grappling with deeper ideas makes it a story that stands out from all the rest with how it, dare I say, cuts deeper than many will expect.