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Knives out

Thanks to films like Brick and Looper, director-writer-producer Rian Johnson makes must-see features. And despite the vitriol that accompanied 2017's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I feel he is one of Hollywood's best filmmakers. With his latest, Knives Out, Johnson only supports that notion.

Written by Johnson and co-produced by Johnson and Ram Bergman (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Knives Out is a fresh take on the classic whodunit. Taking its cues from Agatha Christie and Clue, this murder mystery is fun-filled, acutely smart and somehow upholds everything about murder mysteries while simultaneously subverting it. And, just for good measure, Johnson threw in subtle social commentary and some occasional trolling. This is Thanksgiving's most exciting entry and is, like I mentioned, a must-see.

Knives Out's most obvious draw is its cast, which includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell and Christopher Plummer. Along with this amazing group of talented actors is the notion that everyone looks like they had the time of their lives while filming. It's obvious since every minute of Knives Out's 130-minute running time is fun.

For example, Craig plays a famous private detective, Benoit Blanc, who's anonymously hired to investigate what seems to be an open-and-shut suicide case. Benoit has a southern drawl that's described in the film as similar to Foghorn Leghorn. Its ridiculousness is balanced out by Benoit's subtle-yet-sneaky approach to working a case. Clearly inspired by Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Benoit is the perfect opportunity for Craig to show off his comedic skills. Audiences got a glimpse when Craig played criminal and demolitions expert Joe Bang in 2017's Logan Lucky, but Benoit is a refined comedy gem where Craig deftly balances leading man tropes with hilarious theatrics. It's a departure for the British actor (best known as James Bond) but it's great to see him let loose and chew up some scenery.

Not to be outdone is Evans, who's attempting to shed his Steve Rogers/Captain America image. What better to do so by playing an arrogant, spoiled, unemployed rich kid who lives off money provided by his wealthy author grandfather, Harlen Thrombey (Plummer)? Ransom Drysdale (Evans) clearly alienates the entire family and is the complete opposite of Steve Rogers. Also true is Evans and the fun he had playing Ransom.

That leaves the rest of the family – Harlen is the Thrombey patriarch; Linda Drysdale (Curtis) is Harlen's daughter (and Ransom's mother); Walt Thrombey (Shannon) is Harlen's son and publisher; Joni (Collette) is Harlen's daughter-in-law whose husband (and Harlen's son) died years ago; Richard Drysdale (Johnson) is Linda's husband (and Ransom's father); Meg Thrombey (Langford) is Joni's daughter; Jacob (Martell) is Walt's son; and Donna (Riki Lindhome) is Walt's wife. All of them depend on Harlen's financial support, so they're all suspects when it seems that Harlen's death may be the result of “foul play.”

Benoit investigates Harlen's death with help from Lt. Elliott (Stanfield) and State Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), and they witness firsthand the family dysfunction. Honestly, no one in the family is likeable, but it provides near-endless motives and it's hilariously reassuring to know other families fight and bicker. As a counterbalance, Johnson provides the moral center – Marta Cabrera (de Armas), Harlen's nurse and confidante. Marta is easily the most well-adjusted person in Knives Out (and audience surrogate), so much so that she cannot tell a lie without throwing up. It's a great gimmick that Johnson cleverly deploys by having Benoit milk it for all it's worth.

With so many characters in play it's easy and obvious to compare it to 1985's Clue. With most of the film taking place in the Thrombey home, plenty of dry humor and the chance everyone's guilty, it only begs to look at Johnson's latest as an unofficial sequel. The comparison is a compliment considering Clue is the epitome of a modern Hollywood whodunit (and a cult classic). Knives Out sets itself apart from Cluebecause Johnson not only tells a compelling, intelligent and humorous story, but he, like the recent Ready or Not, takes his shots at the upper class. There's a small subplot concerning Marta's mom that's all too topical, but it reminds viewers Johnson is conscious of national and world events yet still clever enough to keep his film light and funny.

Knives Out is the most chaotic (in a good way) family film and whodunit full of twists and turns, both expected and unexpected. Audiences will be constantly guessing and hopefully pleasantly surprised when its focus shifts to and from a crafty whodunit and slick class struggle.

Johnson isn't a stranger to mysteries – his Brick is a film noir that posits the murder mystery genre within a high school setting. Knives Out is a honed, adult version of that where Rian Johnson's murder mystery instincts are akin to the sharpest blade. As a result, his latest is one of the year's best.

4.5 stars out of 5

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