There’s a certain appeal to whodunnit movies that always keeps the audiences coming. One would hazard it’s due to our inherent curious nature, as well as an intrinsic engagement of our own sleuthing skills that keeps us addicted. It is this successful formula that has birthed a few renowned genre writers – such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and of course, Agatha Christie.
It is the second that director Rian Johnson has drawn his inspiration from for his latest project Knives Out. Shaped in the great tradition of a murder mystery filled with diabolical characters, the storyline is usually led by a talented detective, and is often one filled with surprising twists. In this case, Daniel Craig plays the charming role, dripping with a southern accent and yet with a name of French origin – already the tongue-in-cheek begins.
He is Benoit Blanc, a celebrity detective who has cracked some of the most high-profile cases no other has solved. His newest case – the debatable suicide of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who took knife to throat after his 85th birthday. But the bigger mystery might be the anonymous client who hired the detective in the first place, because Benoit has only received written instructions and an envelope of cash.
Past the heavy compensation, Benoit is more intrigued by his client’s veiled motives, and so he slips into the investigations with the local police.
For Harlan Thrombey, the cause of death is of interest, as a large inheritance is at stake. A successful mystery writer himself, his incredible mansion and entire authorship legacy is now up for claims.
Will his youngest son Walter (Michael Shannon) be the natural choice to take over the business, given he runs his father’s publishing company? Or will the steely eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) be more worthy of taking charge? And let’s not forget the free-spirited daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collete), along with grandchildren Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Meg (Katherine Langford) and Ransom (Chris Evans). If the list of actors doesn’t impress you in this grand cast, then the characters themselves certainly will.
Like the 1985 Clue, Johnson loads his characters with idiosyncratic quirks, and of course, each of their strengths hide a potentially deadly motive. Linda’s “self-made” business came with investments from her father, while Walter’s position in the company was already on the line during a discussion the night before the party. And Joni’s accounting “mistake” was certainly noticed by the patriach. And who better to reveal all of their true nature, than the longtime house nurse Marta (Ana de Armas)?
The kind-hearted girl is picked by Benoit as his sidekick, and because she literally throws up after she lies, is perfect as an organic litmus test and lie detector. But is she too good to be true?
Johnson, who also wrote the script, riddles it with gags. The optical ones are a hoot, such as the homage to Angela Lansbury and Game of Thrones – the latter a perfect emblem nod to the tussles within the family, while other signifiers challenge our perception, like the birthday party accounts that don’t match visually. It never gets heavy-handed and proves Johnson’s love for the genre as he crafts Knives Out as quality entertainment.
But Johnson also injects satire – full of Trump era digs naturally – such as the family’s inability to place Marta’s nationality and the police calling her “the help”. The petulant nature of the family underscores their blind eye to privilege, one which in the real-world, has had serious implications. Johnson deals all of this with enough levity to keep things enjoyable, but also some credible weight to denote the issues.
Sadly, some of the characters are not given as much opportunity to develop. Martell and Langford are severely underutilised as the grandchildren, given how distinctive their characterization as polar camps are. And the incredible LaKeith Stansfield disappears into the background as Detective Elliot, when he could have been an excellent counterweight to Craig.
But the fussing is really because Knives Out is already such a breath of fresh air in itself, that we wish for more to watch. The lack is understandable given the massive cast and doesn’t take away the flick in itself – Johnson’s film is still pointedly fun and a rambunctious adventure.
A modern murder mystery with a stellar ensemble cast – the chips are all in for an entertaining watch, with all kinds of humour to appease its viewers.
First published: www.movieXclusive.com