Knives Out is a highly enjoyable film that’s written and directed by Rian Johnson. The movie is billed as a mystery but there’s lots of comedy throughout and the overall tone is somewhere between a pastiche and a spoof of all the countless murder mysteries of the past (the umpteen Agatha Christie adaptations as well as films such as Murder By Death). Knives Out isn’t a comedy or parody on the level of Clue and the mystery and location isn’t as atmospheric as the original Sleuth, but it has a sense of playfulness about it and the cast is heaving with fantastic actors. The plot surrounds a rich, mystery writer named Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer) who seemingly commits suicide on his 85th birthday after having arguments with almost everybody in his family. A private detective named Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) is paid by an anonymous party to investigate his death and Blanc suspects foul play. The Thrombeys are a less extreme version of the Le Domas clan in Ready Or Not; almost all of them are dislikeable and conniving and they all crave the inheritance of the deceased patriarch. So was it suicide or did one of Harlan’s children, grandchildren, or hired help kill him? As the poster says: “Hell, Any Of Them Could Have Done It”.
To reiterate, there’s a great cast in Knives Out which is one of the reasons to buy a ticket. There’s the gorgeous and talented Ana de Armas (who plays Harlan’s nurse Marta Cabrera), Chris Evans (who plays Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale) has always been great at both drama and comedy, and the aforementioned Daniel Craig gives a somewhat caricatured yet instantly likeable performance. These three actors play the central characters and they’re also the best performers in my opinion. Toni Collette does some humourous, if not slightly exaggerated valley-speak and Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, and Jaeden Martell all do a decent job (although you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference between Martell’s “alt-right” teenager and his stuttering ’80s kid in Andrés Muschietti’s It). There’s a particularly great performance by Chris Evans which shows that his career during the “Marvel Years” was essentially a waste of his talent (at least he’s back now making memorable movies and on that note, if you haven’t already watched Snowpiercer go and do it now). Evans proves how good an actor he is when he speaks about the game of “Go” and how he never thought someone else could beat his grandpa at it; this scene is both emotional (his relationship with Harlan has sadly been usurped) and in repeat viewings it serves possibly as the moment of realisation or the genesis of his revenge.
The comedy element of Knives Out is one of the best aspects of the film. There’s a fantastic running gag in which the various family members show their ignorance of Marta’s home country: Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, or Brazil. The film aside from mocking subtle racism, also satirises the alt-right as well as Instagram influencers with Toni Collette playing a Gwenyth Paltrow-esque owner of “Flam” (as in flimflam) which I assume is a reference to “Goop”. There’s lots of very funny lines in the movie; Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc delivers an amusing speech about a mystery being akin to a doughnut with the centre needing filling, but the centre in this unravelling mystery is another doughnut with another hole. There’s the line “Nazi child masturbating in the bath” which made me laugh out loud and that’s a good indication of the level of comedy writing and comedic delivery by Daniel Craig. Whilst on the topic of Craig, I was going to make a Foghorn Leghorn comment in regards to his accent but Ransom beats me to it. Evans’ character also refers to Blanc’s accent as “C.S.I. KFC” which made me wonder: was this in the script from the outset and Daniel is therefore doing a very well-judged good-bad southern accent or were these lines written in after they began shooting? Aside from the dodgy accent, I have to admit that Blanc is a walking cliché of a brilliant detective but simultaneously a classic character in his own right, enough to have further films centred around his investigations (as Daunte Culpepper could have). Bring on the sequels.
There’s lots of commentary about racism and bigotry here but not in a way that sticks out or feels preachy. When Ransom speaks about his family home, Blanc makes him aware that Harlan bought the house from a “Pakistani real estate developer in the ’80s” which is quite humourous. Harlan’s grandson Jacob Thrombey who sports a Hitler-esque hair-do, refers to Marta as a “dirty anchor baby” which is not quite offensive enough given his political stance (but since the worst words in this film are “bitch” and “shit”, you get the gist of the tone and the content rating it’s striving for: basically the level of profanity and violence is very minimal). Given the mockery of bigots throughout the film, the final line by Lakeith Stanfield’s black detective is “damn!” (delivered in an accent that’s not typical for the character) which seems a little contrived and stereotypical and slightly undoes the rest of the commentary. I guess liberal racism which is “unintended” or less venomous than the conservatives isn’t as bad by Rian Johnson’s standards.
Prejudice aside, visually, this is a perfect film to watch on the run-up to Christmas. The location of the film evokes the season in which it’s released: it’s depressingly cold and misty and watching it on the big screen in November, you just want to snuggle together in a warm cinema (a perfect date movie). You just wish you could hand out Lipsalve to the entire cast, who you can plainly see have chapped lips (an unfortunate side-effect of Ultra HD I guess).
Knives Out is billed as a “whodunnit like no one has ever dunnit” and I think that’s overplaying the film a little. The death for instance, involves drugs including Ketorolac which I’ve never heard of, Morphine which everybody’s aware of, and Naloxone which was made famous by the underrated Desperate Measures (remember Peter McCabe’s request for “Narcan”?). As someone who’s been prescribed Morphine a few times, 100mg seems a little low in order to kill an adult male. I think it would take double that dose to be fatal but I assume Rian Johnson did his research (maybe it’s different for older, frailer people?).
This film is slightly predictable, not in the sense that you know who’s done it, but who hasn’t. As soon as the concept of a lie-detecting, vomit-inducing illness is inserted into the plot, you know the sufferer is either the culprit or the red-herring. Marta also sounds a lot like “Martyr” which means she will be blamed or will suffer. The fact that the audience are told quite early on in the film who’s supposedly killed Harlan, there’s nothing else left but for the ending to be the opposite and that’s exactly what happens.
Back to the topic of Morphine, if it takes 10 minutes to die from an overdose, then the conversation between Marta and Harlan in the attic is way too long, so therefore the medication isn’t what we think it is, which in turn means it’s been switched. That much you can ascertain but the rest is a genuine mystery, so the finale is still a “whodunit” in the traditional sense, although, when you’re finally told who’s “done it”, it doesn’t quite feel satisfying enough. If only there was a twist at the end; a glance, a character such as the great-grandma revealing that she’d seen something extra, just something unexpected to make this a genuine classic murder mystery in its own right.
Despite the uncomplicated and undemanding ending, Knives Out is a superior mystery. Whether you’re a fan of the cast members, ’70s and ’80s murder mysteries, detective dramas, or the writer and director, this is an enjoyable and satisfying movie that’ll keep you entertained from start to finish.