In a Hollywood filled with sequels, reboots, and remakes, new and original properties coming to theaters is starting to become a rarity. So, when Knives Out was announced, I was excited. Not only would this be a return to a genre film that lends to writer-director Rian Johnson’s skill of mystery crafting that he showcased in his first feature Brick, but it would also allow him to infuse his eye for humor that made The Brothers Bloom a delight. Add in the fact that it’s an original work and a good old fashion whodunnit, and Knives Out was already filled with potential.
Having premiered at the Toronto International Festival earlier this month, it closed out the week-long genre festival Fantastic Fest to an audience that laughed, clapped, and reacted to every note of absurdity and twist that Johnson threw at them. Knives Out delivered and there are plenty of reasons why. That being said, the film is best to be seen with no information. The twisting and turning of the narrative is one to be experienced blindly. In the spirit of Clue, Johnson provided us with eccentric, delightful, and all-around tropey characters that perfectly complimented each other and the story without their performances overwhelming the plot.
The premise of Knives Out is as simple as any whodunnit. A detective, a trooper, and a private investigator travel to a lush estate to interview members of the Trombey family after their patriarch dies during his 85th birthday celebration. While on the red carpet at Fantastic Fest, I got the chance to ask Johnson how he chose each of the tropes for the individual family members to embody. His response? He looked at our world. For Johnson, it was important to create characters that despite their eccentricities, audiences would recognize as real people we encounter in the world around us.
From the trolling teen who does nothing but sit on his phone to the Goop inspired influencer and of course the problems of the wealthy upperclass underlying it all, every character choice hits. While this is a testament to Johnson’s excellent crafting of dialogue, it all works because of the stacked cast of actors chosen to play these roles. With Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Chris Evans all playing members of the Trombey family, their ability to cut into each other verbally and fit their eccentric tropes is the heart of the film. There was a chemistry between each of them that felt familial, especially when they argued with each other.
But when it comes to who steals the show, that honor lies squarely with Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc and Ana de Armas as Marta. As Blanc, Craig’s accent is a standout, not just because it’s miles away from his acting life as Bond, but because it is clear that the time he and Johnson spent crafting it. This not only involved crafting a specific sound but also paying attention to small details to make it that much more believable.
Blanc’s mannerisms and mispronunciation of select words hit you in the face with the South. While some in the audience will see it as just an exaggeration of a trope, having been surrounded by Southerners my entire life there is a nuance to the delivery of this caricature that rests on a bed of reality. That being said, Craig’s Blanc is more than just an accent. His connection to Marta and empathy for her is what grounds the character’s own eccentricities against those of the Trombey family.
As for Marta, the caregiver of the family’s patriarch, Harlan, de Armas carries the film as its lead. Marta is witty, charming, and above all else empathetic. She’s caring for those around her even when they treat her poorly. While Knives Out is a good whodunnit, it’s also a great story of a woman learning to act for herself and not losing her empathy along the way. Marta’s strength comes from her ability to maintain her morality even when the Trombey’s put her into situations that should make it shatter. She’s a dynamic character and de Armas’ charisma in front of the camera makes her one of the film’s highlights.
With Marta, a caregiver in the house of an extremely wealthy white family, comes the casual racism that you would expect. Marta is a first-generation Latina, but to the Trombeys she’s from Ecuador, Uruguay and other Latin American countries that just come to mind when talking about her. The microaggressions in the dialogue are the most real thing about the film and Johnson does a good job at allowing them to happen humorously while also balancing the weight of the words and situations that the Trombeys throw Marta in to.
In addition, Marta’s character is the only character that doesn’t exist as a caricature, a choice wisely made, lest her cultural identity become the joke. The representation of her mother and sister on screen are never over the top. Her mother is shown watching novellas in Spanish, they speak to each other in Spanglish in the house, and they all feel like real characters and not stereotypes even in their brief appearance. But, like other characters in the film, Marta does live in a trope: kindness. The type of kindness that leads you to tell the truth, do good, and put others above yourself. While this seems bland, it balances the film’s absurdity.
There are moments in the humor and in the way that the Trombeys treat Marta that rubbed me wrong and made me uncomfortable. Exploiting her family and identity, the Trombeys, at varying degrees, are the people that I encounter throughout life. They’re the ones who ask “where are you really from?” or call you “one of the good ones.” In all of its exaggerated characters, this feels real, and to be honest, it took me out of the film.
That said, Johnson’s writing in this film is spectacular when it comes to weaving a mystery that keeps the audience on its toes as the narrative continually shifts. The use of long and drawn out expositional dialogue is well-used throughout the film, a staple of murder-mysteries and the investigators trying to solve these crimes. The ability to breadcrumb the reveal throughout the film while also misdirecting your viewers is a difficult thing to do, made even more difficult when comedy is added. Even more, Johnson’s ability to craft dialogue that recounts the same events from multiple perspectives and the editing done to pull them all together create a winding narrative that perfectly embodies the whodunnit tradition.
Additionally, the set design is opulent, with each room in the Trombey estate feeling larger than life. The histories on the walls of the Trombey house are those that I want to revisit when Knives Out makes it to DVD. There is depth to every scene set in the estate, with layers of books, paintings, and trinkets that spell out the life of the elder Trombey. There is a beauty to it, with each room carrying its own personality which plays both into the scene in which it is featured and the characters in it.
Ultimately, Knives Out is a breath of fresh air that utilizes all of Johnson’s skills as a writer and director. He was able to blend the best parts of what critics and fans loved from his other features Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Bolstered by an all-star cast that entertain in every way, Knives Out is a film that brings the charm and the mystery that helped solidify Clue as an iconic film. In the future, I easily see this one standing beside it.
Knives Out comes to theaters nationwide November 27, 2019.
Knives Out is a breath of fresh air that utilizes all of Johnson’s skills as a writer and director. He was able to blend the best parts of what critics and fans loved from his other features Brick and The Brothers Bloom. Bolstered by an all-star cast that entertain in every way, Knives Out is a film that brings the charm and the mystery that helped solidify Clue as an iconic film. In the future, I easily see this one standing beside it.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.