‘Knives Out’ Reboots the All-Star Murder Mystery Genre
The whodunnit gets a 21st century reboot in Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s gleeful resuscitation of a long-in-the-tooth genre better known for English manor houses and duplicitous butlers. “I suspect foul play,” says renowned southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). “And I’ve eliminated no suspects.” Of course you do, and of course you haven’t.
KNIVES OUT ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Christopher Plummer
Running time: 130 min
Johnson’s affection for the all-star murder-mystery movie is evident in every frame, although his take is more Murder by Death than Murder on the Orient Express. Thankfully, Knives Out is enough of its own funky brew to feel fresh. The filmmaker doesn’t share Neil Simon’s appetite for schtick-heavy humor nor Agatha Christie’s bumptious machinations. But he does have a facility for unexpected plot twists peppered with snappy dialogue, so wonderfully showcased in his cheeky 2005 neo-noir debut, Brick. This new movie may sport a similarly labyrinthian plot, but make no mistake: Knives Out is simply out for some wicked fun.
The dead body of famed crime novelist Harlan Thombey (Christopher Plummer) awaits a shocked housekeeper the morning after his 85th birthday party. His seemingly self-inflicted slit throat points to a suicide. But why? He’s still a wildly successful author of books like A Kill for All Seasons and Menagerie Tragedy, which have been translated into 30 languages and sold more than 80 million copies. And, by all accounts, the festivities the night before was full of well-wishers and good cheer. Suspicions abound, especially since the immediate family is a snake pit of self-interested back stabbers.
There’s Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s no-nonsense oldest child. She’s got a thriving real estate business and a happy enough marriage to weasly Richard (Don Johnson), with whom she has a douchebag playboy son nicknamed Ransom (Chris Evans). There’s Joni (Toni Collette), a thirsty New Age entrepreneur and widow to Harlan’s dead son Neil. And then there’s Walt (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s hapless, insecure youngest child increasingly desperate to prove that he can manage his father’s publishing empire. Joni has a social activist co-ed daughter named Meg (Katherine Langford), and Walt has a creepy alt-right son named Jacob (Jaeden Martell). All of them are various shades of deeply condescending white entitlement.
Here’s the hitch: Harlan’s nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) has a tragic secret that Harlan desperately wanted to cover up. He loved her like a daughter, maybe even more than the kin he rightly sized up as chronically disappointing moochers. And now, with his dead body triggering an investigation, Marta is in mortal fear that everything is about to fall apart.
Enter Detective Blanc and his methodical way of puzzling together all the missing pieces as he slowly turns the screws. Even worse: Marta has a nauseating way of being dishonest, or what Blanc floridly refers to as “a regurgitative reaction to mistruthing.” She pukes when she lies.
Is that enough set-up for you? Because there are a lot of details to remember as Knives Out weaves through everyone’s various motives, resentments, foibles, and misdeeds. Adultery, toxicology reports, a broken trellis, muddy footprints, a secret door, a contested will, embezzlement, and a syringe full of morphine round out the clues that all point to one hilariously improbable but thrillingly plausible climax. “It’s a donut hole in a donut hole!” exclaims Blanc his chewy Dixie twang. Huh? Sure, whatever. Just keep tackling those curveballs, they’re a hoot.
If there’s any hitch to such byzantine storytelling, it’s that characters tend to get flattened in service to the tightly wound narrative. The two concepts don’t have to be mutually exclusive, especially in this genre, as Robert Altman proved with his nimble, tragic Gosford Park. Johnson, though, is a filmmaker who likes his screenwriting tricks a bit more than the people who populate them.
Take Marta: everyone keeps dinging the dewy-eyed working-class immigrant, patronizingly declaring she’s from Paraguay, or Ecuador, or, you know, one of those places. They pretend they’re sympathetic even as they’re ready to bulldoze her to maintain their generational wealth. It’s a woke message that’s as current as Richard’s MAGA rhetoric and, admittedly, as time-honored as the upstairs/downstairs dynamics always at play in classic British crime novels. Yet Johnson uses her minority status as just another way to zing everyone at the end instead of letting it add substance and pathos to her portrayal. Bereft of heft, Knives Out still succeeds as a slick, sneaky, subversive good time. It doesn’t cut deep, but it’s sharp as hell.