‘Knives Out’ lays out familiar elements of ensemble murder mystery
Two years ago, Kenneth Branaugh was lauded for bringing back the murder-mystery with his update of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” It was a decent-enough adaptation of the classic and earned the director another dance with Christie’s novels. But beneath the heavily stylized window dressing, it was as cold and stoic, even for those who may not have been familiar with its source material.
“Knives Out,” the latest film from Rian Johnson, initially looks like it could have been taken off the shelf of Christie’s library, even down to the Hercule Poirot-like peculiarities of its lead sleuth, Benot Blanc (played with Southern glee by Daniel Craig). As it progresses, it unwinds in a way that may look familiar, but if we know anything about murder-mysteries it is that looks can be deceiving.
I shall proceed with caution, as any mentioning of the various twists or secrets within would be a disservice to the viewer, but the basic plot revolves around an apparent murder of best-selling mystery author Harlan Thromby (played by Christopher Plummer) and his family, who gather like a wake of vultures in hopes of benefiting from his death.
The film begins a week after the eldest Thromby is found dead, and police have corralled his family to his home to interrogate. As each heir speaks glowingly of their own successes, it becomes abundantly clear they all were dependent on Harlan’s financial flow: there’s eldest daughter Linda (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and husband Richard (played by Don Johnson) whose business was completely funded by her father; son Walt (played by Michael Shannon) runs his pop’s publishing company; daughter-in-law Joni (played by Toni Colette) is a self-help “influencer,” whose depth of caring and concern run as deep as the concealer she peddles; then, there is Linda and Richard’s black-sheep son Ransom (played by Chris Evans), who likes to stroll in and stir up chaos before leaving just as quickly.
The only non-family member to be questioned is Marta (played by Ana de Armas), Harlan’s personal nurse and confidant. The family showers her with praise and mentions her being “just like family,” though none can name her country of origin. Harlan, as we learn, had a genuine affection for her, as she seemed to be the only person who truly cared about his health before his bank account.
In “Knives Out’s” initial scenes, Blanc stays cloaked in the shadows as the police do their work, but after passively observing the Thromby patriarchy, he proceeds to dig deeper and begins to dissect each and every element leading up to the elder’s death. And while Craig may at first seem like his Foghorn Leghorn drawl drives his detective into caricature, he shades his performance with such enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to hope for future mysteries with his Benot Blanc on the scene.
Writer/Director Rian Johnson constructs what on the surface seems like a classic “whodunnit,” but as we follow Blanc’s unorthodox practices, “Knives Out” becomes more of a “how-dunnit.” Like Christopher Nolan’s underappreciated “The Prestige,” you realize that there is much more afoot than we are led to believe, and Johnson revels in the details of unpacking the film’s elements, like a Clue-inspired troika doll.
With its large cast, some to get shoved to the side (the youngest Thromby’s - Jaeden Martell and Katherine Langford barely get a full line of dialogue combined, and I would have loved to have spend more with Collette’s character), but it also allows veterans like Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson to shine with barbed zingers throughout.
Rian Johnson rocketed onto the scene with “Brick,” a neo-noir set among the high school scene, and remains one of the best modern examples of the genre. Here, he lays out all the familiar elements of an ensemble murder mystery, infuses them with crackling dialogue and lush cinematorgraphy, then manages to upend expectations and provide us something that feels altogether fresh and razor-sharp.