Review–A mixed bag, the new holiday release Knives Out arrives as the next ensemble mystery

Review by C.J. Bunce

Like an episode of Monk or Murder She Wrote, the next film from writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is a straightforward mystery.  Knives Out comes in on the heels of the similar looking Ready Or Not, and it’s a mash-up of sorts, aiming to have that ensemble cast variety of the last Thanksgiving movie release mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, while trying to bring back the nostalgia of the famous comedy whodunnit movie, Clue.  It’s the 85th birthday of the family patriarch and the families of his three children arrive to celebrate.  The next morning the patriarch is found dead.  Arriving in theaters next week and marketed toward the Thanksgiving holiday crowd, Knives Out turns out to be a mixed bag.

The reason to check it out is as you’d expect: the cast.  The cast choices would be a dream assemblage for any film.  James Bond Daniel Craig facing off against Captain America Chris Evans?  Legend Christopher Plummer delivering a performance as good as his last Oscar-winner?  Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette playing against type?  And top it off with Don Johnson, poised to have his own career second wind as a leading man.  But the real star performance comes from Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049).  de Armas, a ringer for a Tru Calling-era Eliza Dushku, plays a nurse to Christopher Plummer’s character.  Incredibly charming and engaging, de Armas is also given the biggest opportunity to show the most emotional range in the film.  A plus for Bond fans, this movie will serve as a preview of sorts for movie audiences of No Time to Die, as de Armas plays the next “Bond girl” opposite Daniel Craig’s master spy in theaters next spring.

Not a recommended movie for taking on a date, and ultimately a questionable choice for Thanksgiving, one of the conceits (which may take viewers outside the realm of reality) is a character who vomits with each lie.  By the end of the film it becomes an in-your-face gross-out, making viewers watch one character… covered… for an entire scene.  As a story element this “human lie detector” is also a writers’ crutch, a trick that skips over some story challenges viewers would normally be able to work through on their own.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast gets less screen time, which serves to muddle the outcome for members of the audience trying to play along with what is going on, including other family members and domestics, and LaKeith Stanfield (Get Out) and Noah Segan (Looper) as the cops working the crime.

Director Rian Johnson inserts in front of the film his own “don’t spoil the whodunnit” warning, but the quirk is that the film is really a whydunnit, a sort of character study, so the warning seems misplaced.  The film is full of telling and less showing–one key scene even takes place entirely off-screen.  Don’t expect the film to be like Clue, that comedy parody of the genre that offered audiences three endings.  Knives Out has the quirks, but the humor is a bit edgier and mostly absent.  In addition to skimping on humor it also lacks the suspense and fun of the would-be “watch-alike” movie Ready Or Not (reviewed earlier this year here at borg).  For genre fans, the best parts of the movie may include K Callan (Lois & Clark, Deep Space Nine, Barney Miller, Bosom Buddies) as the grandmother, an appearance by M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk, Blade Runner, Raising Arizona, The Rockford Files, Starsky & HutchThe X-Files) as a security guard, and Jamie Lee Curtis telling off a lawyer played by beloved Muppets creator Frank Oz.

Production-wise, the film has all the ambience you’d expect from a mystery movie, thanks to contributions from David Crank (Lincoln, There Will Be Blood), Jeremy Woodward (The Equalizer, Moonrise Kingdom), and David Schlesinger (Jessica Jones, The Dark Knight Rises).  It’s up to the imagery we’ve seen from Clue, Ready Or Not, and the mystery house in Winchester, if not the evocative visions in Woman in Black, Crimson Peak, Dead Again, and Rebecca.  And the manor used for the setting of the film is nicely integrated into Johnson’s story.  The music, by Nathan Johnson (Looper) is edited pretty loud at times, with the heavy-handed use of frantic violins telling us “there is intrigue here!” a little too often.  From a cinematography standpoint the film lacks its own style, with set-up shots you’ve likely seen before.

A cookie cutter ensemble piece for fans of the actors, which may leave audiences wishing for more in some places and less in others, Knives Out arrives in theaters the day before Thanksgiving, November 27, at theaters in the U.S.

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