One of the most overused phrases in film commentary is, “They don’t make movies like this anymore.” It’s become shorthand in a time where Disney and Marvel control the box office and intellectual property is king. Usually, this disclaimer feels a bit exaggerated, yearning for a nostalgic past that never quite existed.
But in the case of “Knives Out,” it’s safe to say this is the kind of movie that “they” don’t make anymore — an original, high budget, high concept, politically active, movie star-filled, ultra-entertaining film for adults.
“Knives Out” tells the story of the Thrombey family, a group of privileged, bickering siblings who come under investigation after the apparent suicide of their father, Harlan. The film wears its genre influences on its sleeve, heading into the eccentric, Agatha Christie-style hijinx with the clear-eyed approach that writer-director Rian Johnson is known for.
Johnson has made his name working within genre conventions, subverting expectations while also adhering to their genuine appeal. The film feels most similar to “Brick,” Johnson’s 2005 noir set in a suburban high school. In both films, Johnson examines genre while never parodying it. Instead, he creates films that can be seen as either contemplations on previous work or outstanding examples of the genre he’s chosen to participate in.
Daniel Craig plays private investigator Benoit Blanc, an eccentric, Southern-accented genius hired to investigate Harlan’s death. With this device, detective Blanc serves as a point-of-view character investigating the Thrombeys’ dysfunctional family dynamics and class anxieties. The main draw of “Knives Out” is the sheer talent of its cast, making it almost unfair to single out any performance in particular. Each of the Thrombeys is perfectly cast, whether it be Michael Shannon as a domineering failed executive, Toni Collette as an obscure social media influencer or Don Johnson as a swaggering, angry and controlling husband.
With that in mind, the two performances that clearly stand out are Chris Evans’ as Harlan’s grandson, Ransom Drysdale, and Ana De Armas’ as Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrerra. For Evans, the film serves as a pleasant departure from his work as the rigidly moral Captain America. Instead, Ransom gives Evans the opportunity to lean into his inherent charisma, delivering each line with an arch deviance that truly sets him apart. Considering that Ransom is clearly the family’s black sheep, Evans uses his isolation as a way for his character to command attention, constantly undercutting his relatives’ clear hypocrisies.
For Ana De Armas, “Knives Out” is a revelation, granting her the opportunity to hopefully continue her pursuit of more serious roles. Marta finds herself at the center of the Thrombeys’ conflicts throughout the film, and De Armas uses her outsider status brilliantly. In most scenes, De Armas walks a subtle line between meek and overwhelmed while maintaining a sense of control and aggression.
Marta also serves as a window through which the film explores its political ideas. As the child of undocumented immigrant parents, Marta’s family’s citizenship status and her economic anxieties allow Johnson to flesh out each of the Thrombeys’ thoughts on America. While at times awkward and too overt, “Knives Out” certainly has something to say about American politics and the artificiality of the American Dream.
The film’s conclusion on these subjects may ultimately be somewhat incomplete, lazily indicating that having political beliefs is grounds for inevitable hypocrisy. The fact that “Knives Out” has the courage to approach hot button political issues at all warrants acclaim.
Politics aside, “Knives Out” clearly succeeds as an entertaining triumph of commercial filmmaking. Arguably the most fun movie of the year, it delivers something all too rare in popular culture: intelligent entertainment geared toward adults. Rather than servicing the lowest common denominator and underestimating audience intelligence, the film is ultra-specific, paying homage to genre conventions filmgoers may not be aware of while simultaneously delivering comedy and suspense.
“Knives Out” is the kind of film “they” don’t make anymore, and for rather obvious reasons. The film has a cast known for its performances in massive franchises like “Captain America” and “James Bond.” Those films, while each enjoyable in their own way, are geared toward mass entertainment, often weakening their ideas in the hope of broad appeal. “Knives Out” refuses to abide by that same standard and instead reaches for something original and current while still gesturing toward the past. Johnson has created a concise standalone film that does everything in its power to entertain an audience. Hopefully, studios will allow him to do the same for years to come.
Contact Chris Carr at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.