Without question one of the best, if not the best film I’ve seen in 2019, Knives Out is an excellent, hilarious and intelligent whodunnit with a spectacular cast.
Murder mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his opulent, gothic New England mansion, and while the police believe it’s a suicide, his entire idiosyncratic family has been at the home for his birthday, with different axes to grind. Someone has hired private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who starts to establish that this may in fact have been a murder.
Controversial opinion time – The Last Jedi was one of the better Star Wars films, and all the crybabies who keep moaning about it can get stuffed. That out of the way, Rian Johnson returns after his sojourn into space to the less expensive niche he previously, successfully occupied. And with his Star Wars clout, he’s written and directed an absolutely brilliant love letter to the murder mystery genre.
Johnson clearly loves these stories, and his script offers a contemporary twist on what many think a cliche or old fashioned genre. In his hands this feels a savvy, up to date reshuffle that’s very cleverly plotted and yet accessible to audiences on multiple levels.
2017’s Murder on the Orient Express suffered from twists and turns being well known, but as an American tribute to Christie, Knives Out brings an air of unpredictability to a genre that doesn’t often have it, along with a heavy dose of excellent comedy (there are more laughs in this than most comedies) and a stunningly strong (engaged) cast.
As writer and director, Johnson can shape the intricate plot and its machinations as intended, meaning everything onscreen is there because he intended it to be (easter eggs, red herrings and all – I imagine this’ll have great rewatch value). He delights in huge dialogues between the famous cast which zing and pop, and makes interesting, attention grabbing diversions and changes from your expectations.
One early subversion makes us ponder a situation from an entirely different perspective, before revelations present parallel events that force us to reassess what we’d already seen – editor Bob Ducsay helps manipulates us through expert intercuts and edits throughout. Nathan Johnson scores the film with a snappy, atmospheric and fun soundtrack, while Steve Yedlin’s colourfully gothic cinematography cements the spectacular set and costume design in place (look at the poster below to see what I mean).
This feels like a barmy gothic 21st century mansion because it was (this was a real home accessorised for the movie), and Yedlin makes it feel ornate (if not near tacky) as well as comfortably New England, while the outside world seems drab and boring.
It can’t be said enough that this cast is excellent, not only full of huge names but names who are clearly loving every minute of interacting with one another – each making the most of Johnson’s writing. Daniel Craig is joint standout, playing completely against his Bond persona and delighting in this as a Southern gentlemen detective.
Blanc is a scene stealing, quirky joy and Craig’s brave southern American accent is played with a nod to the fact that Blanc knows his voice will make others underestimate him. The actor’s impressive comedic sensibilities come to the fore as well, before his dramatic skills are called for toward the end – for a remarkably rounded, fun performance. The more of this sort of Daniel Craig the better, post Bond!
Matching him with a very different role is Ana de Armas as Harlan’s nurse Marta, our audience surrogate at the heart of the story. While everyone around her is relishing giving heightened performances, de Armas is the sympathetic, compassionate and emotional core – Marta is part of the family from Harlan’s perspective, but coolly regarded or racially scorned by the extended family.
You are on her side almost immediately as a result, and through the twists and turns she quickly becomes a central protagonist assisting Blanc – de Armas a softer counterpoint to Craig’s Foghorn Leghorn ravings. What she achieves is no mean feat, standing out as a recognisably flawed but caring person at the centre of a carnival of larger than life characters – heartfelt scenes with Plummer and Craig show how talented she is.
Plummer is not in this much (god, I wonder why given the synopsis?!) but is excellent as the mystery writer whose own death proves to be akin to one of his plots. The older actor is very much enjoying himself in family scenes, but is equally at home in more emotional scenes with de Armas.
As for the family – I believe they call this a murderer’s row of talent. How Johnson got all these names together is scarcely believable, but you can tell everyone absolutely loves being in this. Jamie Lee Curtis plays sneeringly, strongly against type as the overly prim Linda (Harlan’s daughter), possessed of extreme self confidence and disdain for those she considers beneath her (and her father’s decisions).
Don Johnson (enjoying a mini renaissance) seems to relish starring as Linda’s Trumpian husband Richard, all declamatory statements and smarm hiding sordid issues with Harlan. Their son Ransom is played hilariously by Chris Evans, the former Captain America an absolute scream as the most arrogant rich kid known to man. Either incredibly stupid or unexpectedly intelligent, his savage attacks on everyone when he enters mark the film’s funniest patch.
Michael Shannon is also excellent as the “weaker” Thrombey son Walt, the infamously intense actor (reportedly absolutely hilarious in real life) clearly loving the chance to be this weasel of a son running out of (years of) patience with his dad. Confrontations with Evans and Johnson are comic highpoints – though he still gets across his trademark intensity in some uncomfortable scenes.
Toni Collette portrays the least subtle Gwyneth Paltrow/Instagram influencer parody ever, again so cast against type but brilliantly infuriating, all drawly Valley Girl liberalism yet conversely all about the money. Katherine Langford’s Meg is the second most sympathetic Thrombey, the likeable voice of reason contrasted with a smartphone glued, Nazi scumbag cousin played with detached, nasty boredom by Jaeden Martell.
Outside the family, Lakeith Stanfield’s distinctly unimpressed Detective Elliot wrangles everyone else and is determined the death is a suicide, resignedly juggling the esoteric Blanc and Harlan Thrombey superfan colleague Wagner, played with puppy dog stupidity by Johnson mainstay Noah Segan. Lastly, the family’s long suffering lawyer is played in a great little cameo by Frank Oz (Yoda and Miss Piggy!).
Knives Out was one of my top films of 2019 – go see it! It’s so good that I’d be first in line for a series of Benoit Blanc mysteries in the years to come.