Knives Out is A Witty Modern Take on Murder Mysteries, with Solid Performances and Direction
Whodunits from the likes of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle are rare in this day and age. Which is what makes Rian Johnson’s Knives Out all the more enjoyable. Set in modern day pastoral Massachusetts, it’s skewers the antics and sensibilities of its cast, and it doesn’t dissect the mystery as much as extrapolates it, through the eyes of Harlan’s personal maid Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) and renowned sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
Once successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies on the night of his 85th birthday, it seems like almost everyone in his family is a suspect, even though it initially looks like a suicide. He was taking his son Walt (Michael Shannon) off from running the publishing business, and cutting off his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) from his money for skimming from his cheques. He also had arguments with son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) and grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Like Benoit says half-way through the film, there’s definitely been foul play and he has eliminated no one as a suspect.
You expect the film to go the way most detective stories do, but in typical Rian Johnson fashion, it ‘subverts’ the narrative by revealing early on how Harlan apparently died. From that moment on, the film turns into a thriller where one character is trying to derail Blanc’s investigation, until it turns out there’s more to the case. Like Blanc says in a hilarious monologue, it might seem like this case was a donut with a perfect donut shaped hole, but there’s a whole other donut inside that hole with its own missing hole.
Like with Christie’s work, there’s also social satire. Marta is well-liked by most of the Thrombey family, but still somehow they forgot to invite her to Harlan’s funeral. Apparently, each of them wanted to be there but were ‘overruled’. Also, none of them can remember which South American country she’s from.
In fact, the humor sets the film apart: the characters are just on the right side of caricatures to make the whole thing work.
Clearly, Johnson has a lot of love for the genre, and he does just enough to make sure the film doesn’t derail into a nostalgia act. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin positions the cameras in such a way that you feel like you are sneaking around the characters’ backs and then getting all in their faces, hovering above or peering up from below.
Of course, no whodunit story is complete without a reveal scene, and Knives Out gives ample time to its characters as they piece the mystery together, complete with Blanc laying down the true nature of that night in exact detail. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the film, and it ends the way you expect these type of stories to end: with the culprit being carried off in handcuffs by the police.
Knives Out might get overshadowed by powerhouse films such as The Irishman and Marriage Story coming out recently, and while it’s not as compelling as those two, it’s still a highly entertaining film with a cast and director on their A game. Don’t miss this one, even if to just catch Craig’s ridiculous accent.