Knives Out (2019)
Knives Out (2019)

Genre: Crime Comedy and Mystery Running Time: 2 hrs. 10 min.

Release Date: November 27th, 2019 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Rian Johnson Actors: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell

 


 

O

pening with a fog-shrouded shot of an ornate mansion, like something out of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (complete with slow-motion hounds), the cold, dark, Thrombey manor holds plenty of secrets (and eerie decorations, including plenty of dolls, resembling the toy-adorned estate of Andrew Wyke from “Sleuth”; yet the setting is present-day, so computers and smart phones and other technology – and creative cursing – have their places in the story). And the maid is about to discover the dead body of patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose throat has been cut in what appears to be a suicide. But not everything is as it seems …

Harlan was an immensely successful mystery author (embroiled in a spellbinder of which he’d be proud, like the characters in “Basic Instinct”), whose novels, publishing house, cash, property, and other assets have values into the tens of millions. So it’s no surprise that one week after his death, the police investigation, led by Lieutenant Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), is still toiling over the little details, unwilling to close the case as a mere suicide. Things are further complicated by the anonymous employment of renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the “last of the gentlemen sleuths,” whose consulting involvement suggests that foul play is afoot. Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), is the only one without a clear reason to have wanted him dead, which makes her an ideal Watson to Blanc’s Holmes; and so the two retrace the steps of the sizable Thrombey family to get to the bottom of his puzzling demise. “My presence will be ornamental,” he insists, though it’s apparent that his role will be extremely instrumental.

“Knives Out” is quite the whodunnit, as the authorities interrogate each of the Thrombey relatives, introducing a recognizable ensemble of character actors and stars – including Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette, as well as Frank Oz and M. Emmet Walsh in minor roles. So many notable people could have had a part in Harlan’s downfall. Not unexpectedly, much of the film resorts to flashbacks to chronicle the final night of Harlan’s life, which centered around his 85th birthday party – an event marred by his decision to confront the faults of his children, many of whom misuse his fortunes. Times, professions, whereabouts, associates, and more are uncovered as the questioning ensues, peppered by comical moments that contradict testimony and cast doubts on the truthfulness of admissions.

“The guy practically lives in a Clue board.” Everyone’s a suspect; everyone’s accounts of the evening divulge holes; everyone has a motive; alibis are weak; and a jazzy percussion soundtrack lingers in the background. Every action has alternate interpretations, keeping the mystery twisty, even as the humor takes over, causing the mood to be blithe, not bitter. Interestingly, the initial grilling doesn’t exclude suspects – it merely exposes lies that demonstrate that anyone could be responsible for the crime (nodding to “Murder on the Orient Express”). And yet, even before the halfway point, the film offers viewers a major revelation – one so unusual that it could have maintained the tension for much longer if it wasn’t so easily given away. Its existence is indicative of the film’s desire to be unguessable, but it also generates a lull right in the middle – as events are replayed, a memorial service is held, and the reading of the will is conducted. It basically feels as if the mystery has been solved; audiences simply know too much too soon.

Fortunately, with its old-fashioned approach to the murder/mystery design, very much resembling a mash-up of classic films noir (such as “Dial M for Murder,” “Laura,” and “The Thin Man,” particularly with the final reveal that gathers all of the suspects back into a room together), “Knives Out” stays intriguing. Craig dons an exaggerated accent (though not convincing as an entirely new persona) and pronounced cigar-puffing, while Armas’ ethnically-ambiguous nurse (a component that detours into a significant political debate, though one that could have been removed to save a few minutes) has a regurgitative aversion to falsehoods. The other players are also highly idiosyncratic, which lends to the character-study feel of the second act as the whodunnit morphs into a blackmail scheme and a matter of how to get away with murder (or who knows about the possible murder; after all, everyone has a motive). It gets goofier when the explanations unfold, yet the resolution and the parting shots are incredibly satisfying. It may borrow from – or pay homage to – a number of other popular detective stories and premises, but it’s nevertheless consistently humorous and entertaining.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10