Knives Out (2019)
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer
Rian Johnson doesn’t do standard genre fare. Brick moved the film noir mystery into a high school; Brothers Bloom pumped the caper movie full of screwball comedy and unreliable narrators; Looper made the time travel thriller investigate the cost of messing with the order of things. The Whodunnit was a genre of mystery fiction particularly popular in the early part of the 20th Century and Knives Out was marketed as “A whodunnit like no one ever dunnit”, which it is, in a roundabout way.
The action centres on millionaire mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) who has been been found dead at home, presumed murdered. The entire family whose lives Harlan had made very easy through his success are suspect, along with the victim’s nurse and confidant (Ana de Armas). It’s up to an eccentric and unorthodox private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to get to the centre of this tangled web.
The Thrombey clan are broad caricatures that serve their plot rather than standing up in their own right. This was probably intentional; an elaborate tribute to ensemble comedy-mystery Clue and the classic board game it was based on. Everyone has their little quirks, but you could reduce each of them down to a single personality trait and maybe a colour. It works, though it is a bit disheartening to see Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda (stern/raspberry pink) given so little to do, though Toni Collette’s Joni (irritating/candy pink), Don Johnson’s Richard (insensitive/blue denim) and Chris Evans’ Ransom (smug/orange) all have some great moments.
It’s great to see Plummer relishing an interesting role again, and as the suspiciously deceased patriarch Harlan Thrombey he seems to foresee much that ends up coming to pass, demonstrating borderline omnipotence, even showing some awareness of the wider story being told in the film, commenting on the action across edits and timeframes. He has a wicked sense of humour and knows what his family are like and what they’ll resort to in order to undermine each other, especially when they’re not on their best behaviour in front of him, and it’s good fun to witness just how right he is.
What simplifying most of the characters does is shift our focus to Marta, the unlikely but fascinating protagonist; an outsider brought into the centre of Blanc’s investigation. De Armas plays her as fragile but strong-willed, a person so good she’s got a revealing physical tell when she lies outright. Speaking of the one asking the questions, it does take time to tune your ear into Craig doing a Kentucky drawl, but he’s so darn entertaining in the way he sets out how he cracked the case, you’re very quickly swept up. He’s a classic detective archetype with his distracting accent and physical tics (rolling a coin between his fingers, stopping irrelevant lines of questioning dead by playing a single sharp note on the piano). According to Blanc, mysteries are doughnuts, and some mysteries have a smaller doughnut in the hole, and Last Will and Testament readings of which there is a particularly important example in this film are usually like “community theatre performances of a tax return”.
The Thrombey house becomes another character complete with quirks and a personality all of its own. Creaky stairs, restricted sightlines and half-overheard conversations all play a part in the mystery. The centrepiece of an ostentatious sculpture/coat of arms made of blades of all shape and sizes that can be found in the background of Blanc’s interrogation of the Thrombey family, a halo of instuments of death hovering behind the accused is enjoyably on-the-nose.
You may have seen a lot of these plot devices, the re-treading of the same events from multiple perspectives and red herrings aplenty, but not necessarily in this order. It’s the shape of the story that really marks Knives Out… out. The central mystery is all-but solved pretty early in proceedings, only for it to open out a series of further meandering, and increasingly macabre paths. As an audience we are made privy to an unusual amount of information in the first act, only for most of it to be revealed as a diversion, as a tactic to shift our loyalties, much as Blanc himself would want.
Knives Out is a sharp and craftily told mystery that takes you on an unusual path to the truth. It is perhaps not quite the game-changer it’s shooting for and it does admittedly sag a little in the middle, but as long and talky movies go it is engaging and entertaining. Time after time Rian Johnson subverts expectations and keeps proving his sheer inventiveness. A further Benoit Blanc mystery or two some time in the future would certainly be welcome, though here’s hoping this particular auteur keeps picking projects very different to his last.