Old-fashioned murder mystery plays by the rules
Knives Out (2019)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis
Before he graduated to big-time Hollywood status directing 2017’s Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, filmmaker Rian Johnson started out his feature film career with the 2005 cult film Brick. That hidden gem stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a high school loner who gets caught up in the underworld of a high school crime ring while investigating the mysterious disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. An innovative (and entirely self-conscious) rumination on movie genres, Brick combines the hardboiled film noir argot of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon with the existential teenage angst of John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink. Rian’s newest is an equally self-conscious “movie” movie. Drunk on the “whodunit” genre of Agatha Christie novels (and the countless movie adaptations/homages that have sprung from them), Johnson has written and directed an old-fashioned, giddy fun, star-studded murder mystery in Knives Out.
Christie’s novels, stuffed as they are with suspects and potential victims, have long been the source for ensemble-cast cinema. Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, for example, boasted Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Michael York, while the 2017 version had Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Michelle Pfeiffer. While Knives Out isn’t actually based on any specific work of Christie’s, Johnson takes the opportunity to recruit his own killer cast.
Our live-action version of Clue (complete with mansion, suspects, weapons and a dead body) takes place in rural Massachusetts. The sprawling, Gothic Revival manse of world-famous mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christoper Plummer) is chockablock with relatives celebrating the writer’s 85th birthday. There’s entrepreneurial daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), good ole boy son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), black sheep grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), overworked number one son Walt (Michael Shannon), woo-woo widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and a handful of other spouses and offspring. But the happy occasion ends in tragedy when the next morning Harlan’s dead body is discovered—
The local police (including LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) aren’t so convinced. There’s also the fact that renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (James Bond himself, Daniel Craig) is on the scene, hired by a mysteriously unknown party and sent to the scene of Thrombey’s possible murder. The laconic detective soon joins forces with Thrombey’s personal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas from Blade Runner 2020). Everybody in the family, it seems, had motive (financial, mostly) to kill off old Thrombey and just about all of them have deep, dark secrets to keep. Innocent, wide-eyed Marta isn’t immune from that secret-keeping either. She just accomplishes it while tagging alongside our intrepid detective.
Johnson takes Knives Out in an over-
As a rule-following whodunit, Johnson’s script is required to jump though an awful lot of logical hoops. He does settle on a clever variation on the theme, spilling a number of surprising secrets early on—only to find some crazy new twists in the final act. The eventual solution to it all holds up just fine, but requires a string of mightily convoluted motives, actions, coincidences, suppositions and red herrings. In the real world, of course, murders don’t look or feel anything like this. But in the cloistered drawing rooms of Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen, this sort of comically complex narrative is perfectly acceptable—even expected.
The all-star cast isn’t exactly required to do a lot of heavy lifting here. Sit around an oak-lined study, act suspicious, argue with relatives, hold up under police interrogation: That’s pretty much the routine. But everyone at least seems to be having fun with the assignment, hamming it up appropriately. Craig, with his lazy Southern drawl, has the most fun. Between this and his kooky turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Craig is really learning to loosen up on screen. Here’s hoping he tries out more comedy once he’s free of the self-serious Bond franchise. The Cuban-born de Armas, well-established as a movie and TV star in Spain, serves as Knives Out’s main character for most of the film’s runtime and makes a solid case for future stateside stardom.
It’s not like Johnson has built a better mousetrap here (or a better The Mousetrap, for that matter). In the final tally—when our detective pulls out the tiny manila envelope and reads off the correct cards for suspect, room and murder weapon—this murder mystery riff-off doesn’t break any particularly new ground. It is, however, a stylish and clever puzzle goosed up with plenty of modern brio (references to incels and immigration reform pepper the film’s impolite conversation). And that’s probably all audiences require. If you like your mysteries done up old school, Knives Out is the genre-loving homage you’ve been searching for.
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