The whodunnit renaissance is upon us! Wedged between Kenneth Branagh’s reimagining of The Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and the upcoming sequel Death on the Nile, Knives Out sticks it in to the genre and twists it, with equal amounts of mystery and humour. Directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is an entertaining caper that plays on the notions of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and combines it with a sort of “post-modern” self-aware comedy with a sharp enough bite to kill. That, combined with a superb all star cast sets it up as one of the best films of the year.
Set in modern-day New England in the Thrombey household, adorned with gothic décor and nods to various old-fashioned murder mysteries, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his attic. From the outset it seems like a suicide, but questions remain if there was foul play, particularly as he ruffled some feathers on the night of his death with his privileged and spoiled family. We center immediately on his nurse and carer Marta (Ana de Armas), who wasn’t invited to the funeral and whose ethnicity is regularly misidentified by the Thrombeys. She is at first above suspicion as she vomits when she lies, but she is also hiding dark secrets, as is the rest of the family. There’s black sheep Ransom (Chris Evans), bubbling buffoon Walt (Michael Shannon), adulterous son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), lifestyle and Instagram guru Joni (Toni Collette) and a cast of more.
As daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) says early on in the film, we are all “waiting for the big reveal”, and that is made all the more fun by Poirot-rip off Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a cigar smoking Southerner with a nose for mystery. But even he doesn’t know who has hired him and what for. He is flanked by Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield), a local detective involved in the murder investigation.
To Johnson’s credit, the films set up is flawless and it destabilizes the expectations of the murder mystery. The murder doesn’t happen 30 minutes in after characters have already been established. Instead we open on the murder and the interviewing of potential suspects and work back from there. For the first half of the film, there’s no doubt it’s a whodunnit, but at the same time, in the latter half of the movie Johnson tries to subvert the film, turning part comedy and part drama. It’s a tone I wish could have been consistent throughout the whole film, but also again plays on audience expectations.
For me, interest in the mystery is underscored by the characters. Though almost caricatures at times, each characterisation is grounded in reality with just enough satire to conjure laughs (See Joni and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop stage). The dynamic script is sharp and smart, but also with social commentary, particularly with immigrant Marta at the heart of the story, particularly for a time in the USA where socially-politically things are as convoluted as a murder mystery.
The house itself is also a character, reminiscent of Cluedo with its rooms and secret entries. Bringing to life this pompous house is like bringing to life Buckingham Palace, humanising it but also holding it just enough away for mystery to evolve. You only must look at the circular display of knives in the main interrogation room to see what I mean.
My one criticism is with the underused talents of Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell, two young actors who could have been provided with more to shine and be equals with their adult co-stars. Same with Stanfield, who’s impressive filmography continues to expand more into the mainstream space. However Knives Out is definitely a star vehicle for de Armas, who after a string of smaller roles takes centre stage here as a young Cuban woman.
Johnson brings his own to the genre and creates a wicked world of deceit and drama with the perfect level of comedy to make every moment enjoyable. Its ensemble cast bring their best throughout and it is a fun adventure from beginning to end.
Johnson sends up the murder mystery genre with a cast as dedicated to honouring it as it is to bring humour to it. There’s no real better crowd-pleaser this year that defies expectations and it’s an all-round entertaining flick that’s both Agatha Christie and 2019 in a nutshell.
The film could have done better for its younger cast, but it’s nice for Ana de Armas’ star to shine in this one.
Originally published on Back Row, 26 November, 2019.