By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

This year’s Fantastic Fest closed with a delightfully smart, mystery thriller which would possibly impress Agatha Christie herself. Writer/director Rian Johnson has taken the classic “whodunnit” and offers an engrossing and entertaining twist on the genre. With a talented ensemble cast, intelligent writing and superb direction, Johnson’s Knives Out is one of those movies which, in the wrong hands, would have been just another transparent knock-off. However, given Johnson’s skills as a storyteller and his obvious love for the genre, his film stands out from others that have weakly attempted the same feat in vain.

For the night of his 85th birthday, the critically acclaimed and wealthy novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) invites his family to his estate for a celebration. However, it is a night that ends horrifically with Thrombey’s death. Because the stern and indiosyncratic patriarch has angered and frustrated each and every member of his family for various reasons, everyone is a suspect. The police and respected private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) begin interviewing the suspects and examining the property for clues. Blanc definitely smells foul play. As he digs deeper, even with all of of his prowess, the talented detective becomes even more bewildered and intrigued with piecing together the players and the clues.

After experiencing all that this movie has to offer, I must say that Rian Johnson has made his best film so far. The filmmaker utilizes the perfect aesthetics, solid character development and the valiant attempts at misdirection that a mystery filmmaker should execute well. I feel that one certain element is a bit obvious, but the exact “hows” are superbly kept under wraps. The journey to the big reveal is an exciting and thoroughly entertaining one.

Johnson and his casting director have assembled an outstanding ensemble cast for this film with no real weak link in the bunch. The genuine standouts, though, are Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas. Craig performs with much gusto and confidence as sleuth Benoit Blanc. It is a character realization that owes much to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, but has enough charm and accessibility of his own to feel right at home in the present.

Evans gives an exciting and enjoyable turn as the repellent and snide Ransom Drysdale, Harlan’s spoiled grandson. Ana de Armas gives a winsome and refined performance as Marta, Harlan’s nurse/caregiver who seems to be that last to see him alive. The movie also features excellent work by Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer.

Now I know a lot of people have dismissed this movie as a “Clue” or Agatha Christie rip off, but Rian Johnson has accomplished more than just that with Knives Out. It isn’t exactly a perfect subversion of that particular genre, but Johnson certainly knows how to make an admirable contribution to mystery-thrillers that’ll hold up for years to come.

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