Review – Knives Out (2019)
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Noah Segan, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell
While the classic whodunit has been all but absent from the big screen for some time, it has been a generic staple of television programming for decades. From Murder, She Wrote to Midsomer Murders to Death in Paradise, the pleasure of its formulaic structure makes it perfect for self-contained, episodic storytelling. With the ridiculously entertaining Knives Out, however, writer-director Rian Johnson reminds us of the effectiveness of the whodunit as a big screen product. Coming up for air between his Star Wars commitments, Johnson returns to his crime roots – his debut feature, 2005’s Brick, transported the hard boiled detective genre to a high school setting – to bring us a film that is equal parts homage to and parody of the classic Agatha Christie formula.
The morning after his 85th birthday party, the world’s best selling crime novelist, Harland Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study, his throat slit. While it is deemed a relatively open-and-shut case of suicide by the police, renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) finds himself in receipt of an anonymous envelope of cash and a request to investigate. In the days between Thrombey’s wake and the reading of his will his family are gathered at his country mansion giving Blanc the chance to interrogate and observe. Naturally, everyone is a suspect. But even though the family presents him with an abundance of possible motives, he is still faced with a dearth of acceptable explanations.
A meticulously crafted narrative, dense with information without being convoluted, Knives Out isn’t afraid to ask its audience to work. The film starts slowly, with a series of character interviews which while interesting and amusing are quite static and talky. But these interviews serve to efficiently recap the events and introduce the key players, allowing us to then hit the ground running. Far from a paint by numbers exercise, Johnson has a good sense of when to stick to the classic formula and when to deviate from it. The detective story traditionally employs a restricted narration. We only see what the detective sees so we only know what the detective knows and therefore we are dependent on them to solve the mystery for us. Johnson largely sticks to this approach, with the exception of one key piece of information which he gives us quite early, which shifts the hierarchy of knowledge in our favour and has us relate differently to Blanc’s investigation. This is countered, though, by keeping much of Blanc’s thinking concealed so we don’t always know what conclusions he is drawing.
What the movies can offer the whodunit which the small screen can’t is the all-star cast. While Knives Out is not quite the collection of A-listers that we saw in the 1970s productions of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, it does bring together an impressively deep collection of really interesting performers. Daniel Craig is hamming it up in the best possible way as the southern gentleman detective, complete with Foghorn Leghorn accent. As Thrombey’s children and in-laws, Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter Linda), Michael Shannon (son Walt), Toni Collette (widowed daughter-in-law Joni) and Don Johnson (Linda’s husband Richard) give some delicious performances as thoroughly unlikeable people. As Ransom, Thrombey’s grandson and the black sheep of the family, Chris Evans is clearly relishing the opportunity to shake off the boy scout image forged by a decade of playing Captain America. In contrast to all of them, who see Thrombey as little more than the key to an inheritance, Marta (de Armas), his nurse and one genuine friend, is a picture of honour, though with the amusing Pinocchio-like trait of throwing up whenever she lies. Rian Johnson is really effective in giving all of them their moments (with the exception of Ricki Lindholm as Walt’s wife Donna who appears to have been all but edited out of the film). Giving all of them an opportunity to flesh out their character is significant in making us consider them all seriously as potential perpetrators of the crime.
While functioning effectively as a murder mystery, there is also a healthy dose of parody here. Thrombey’s manor, superbly realised by production designer David Crank, is full of secret doors, fake windows and concealed passageways. The perfect home for a crime novelist. While not an outright comedy, the humour is persistent though never undermining the drama. Johnson has taken a quaint, British form and relocated it to a contemporary American setting in a way that doesn’t feel forced. This relocation tweaks the traditionally British upstairs/downstairs class conflict into a none too subtle dig at privilege in Trump’s America. Linda, Walt and Joni all proudly consider themselves as self-made success stories, refusing to acknowledge how all of their opportunities have been born out of their father’s success. They all project a benevolent, familial relationship with the help, though list a different South American country every time they are called upon to reference Marta’s heritage. Each apologise to her about not being invited to the funeral, insisting that it was the other two who voted them down.
An oddity for 21st century mainstream cinema, Knives Out is a big screen people pleaser built around narrative rather than visual spectacle. It is a puzzle. It is fun to sit and speculate. To reassess and re-hypothesise with every new piece of information. To wonder who to believe and who not to. Finding the perfect balance between homage and invention, Knives Out is playful, funny, satisfying and straight up entertaining.
Review by Duncan McLean
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