In 2012, baseball was dropped from the Olympics. Thankfully, it's been added back for the 2020 games. But let me propose another addition: genre-juggling, with writer-director Rian Johnson one of the favorites to win gold.
Admittedly, my sports metaphor might be a bridge too far, but balancing genres is one of the toughest challenges for any filmmaker. It takes a backseat to no other aesthetic accomplishment. That is why Johnson's juxtaposition of comedy, drama and mystery in his latest film, Knives Out, deserves praise. And it's all the more noteworthy considering his previous two productions (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Looper) dabbled in genres vastly different from his new movie.
Knives Out is the story of a dysfunctional family assembled to celebrate the 85th birthday of their patriarch, crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), at his extravagant Massachusetts mansion. But when Harlan turns up dead, everyone is a suspect. Most family members initially assume suicide, but if Harlan slit his own throat, why did an anonymous person hire famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to question each member of the Thrombey clan?
In many ways, Knives Out is a classic suspense film in the vein of Murder on the Orient Express, with a stellar ensemble and at least one red herring. But the movie is fishy in other ways too, as it both honors and subverts classic mystery conventions, turning the plot into just as much of a "howdunit" as a "whodunit." Cinematically located between Sleuth and Clue, it owes a great deal to both, though it's substantially less impressive than the former and noticeably better than the latter. (Look closely and you might spot props similar to those in the former film, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine and remains a masterpiece of the genre.)
But even Sleuth didn't dare insert as much cheeky, irreverent comedy as Johnson does. Clue did, but its drama and suspense suffered. Not so for Knives Out, which doesn't sacrifice tension and even manages to work in timely social commentary without appearing heavy-handed or preachy.
Though each actor's time is limited, all the characters are distinct, which is no small task considering the story involves more than a dozen important players. Craig – having a blast with an infectious Southern drawl – is uncharacteristically hilarious and a joy to behold. Michael Shannon and Chris Evans are also effective, as is Plummer, who seemingly either dies or is close to death in almost all his recent films. Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson have their moments too, despite brief screen time, though Johnson seems a bit lost. And it's a pleasure to see Frank Oz and M. Emmet Walsh in cameos. But the breakout star is Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who, as Harlan's caregiver, outshines everyone by doing most of the film's narrative and dramatic heavy lifting.
"The guy practically lives in a Clue board," someone says about Harlan. And for just over two hours, you'll love living in a game board too, surrounded by charming production design, smart writing, tight editing and not a single computer-generated spectacle. In an industry that often dumbs you down, Knives Out raises your IQ.
– This story appears in the Nov. 27, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.