Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

Toronto Review: Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’ is packed with wit and intrigue

Courtesy of TIFF

Rian Johnson’s latest is an entertaining and compelling mystery tale with a comedic twist

Crime/mystery films, or as Rian Johnson prefers to call it ‘whodunnit’, are typically known to take themselves too seriously, plunging viewers into darker worlds of intrigue packaged in grim settings and flawed characters. Rather than merely inviting audiences into a similarly crafted film, perhaps in similar vein to the last Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer-starrer THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Rian Johnson opts for much lighter, more entertaining fare while keeping the intrigue intact.

The result is an unexpected, entertaining, broadly appealing film that succeeds in maintaining a delicate balance between immersing audiences into a well-honed mystery while never having them forget that the purpose of it all is to have fun – and unashamedly so. Even if it’s not groundbreaking work, KNIVES OUT makes for a great time at the movies thanks to stellar casting, a witty script with some timely undertones, a marvelous production design and superb editing that glues the story together with excellent pacing that helps the film’s 130-minute running time feel much less daunting.

The story begins when acclaimed crime novelist Harlan Thrombrey (a delightful Christopher Plummer, given a rare opportunity to simply have fun with a role) is found dead at his mansion. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, superbly comedic in a rare hilarious turn showing the actor’s underappreciated range despite an accent that feels somewhat jarring at first) is enlisted on the case. To investigate, he heads to the family mansion where the entire Thrombrey family gathers to process the news. Their tensions and disagreements soon rise to the surface, as viewers are treated to different versions of the same story according to every family member.

Johnson assembles a dream cast: Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis and the especially sublime Ana de Armas in a star-making turn. All uniformly excellent and convincing in their roles, the actors seemed to be relishing the opportunity to portray such unsympathetic characters with ulterior motives, aided by fantastic dialogue that manages to package the story comedically but with the right dose that takes the story across its different twists and turns while not abandoning the right amount of characterization that keeps the whole thing from turning into a gimmick.

The film’s production design by David Crank deserves special praise. Crank creates a mansion where every room and every corner hide secrets and buries animosities, while other technical credits, particularly the cinematography, costume design and editing, all contribute to making a perfectly enjoyable adult-oriented mid-budget film, the kind of film that studios in Hollywood do not dare make anymore. In going back to the old fashioned, yet modern at heart, type of films in which A-listers gather to tell a well-crafted story that never underestimates its audience, Johnson creates an exciting story that, going by the reaction at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere Saturday night, could very well become a box office hit.

Verdict:  KNIVES OUT isn’t groundbreaking work but it doesn’t need to be. By not taking itself too seriously and focusing on the fun and intrigue, it is both delightful and smart. Never pretentious nor attempting to be anything more than genuinely entertaining fare, it keeps audiences engaged throughout. A potential box office winner.  

Grade: B+

This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. Lionsgate will release Knives Out on November 27.

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