Starring: Ana De Armas
Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Genre: Mystery, Comedy, Drama, Crime
Runtime: 2 hours, 10 minutes
In two short hours, Knives Out quickly pushed its way onto the very prolific list of my favorite movies. While at the theater, I found myself checking my phone hoping that time was running slower than normal, yearning for extra runtime. An instant detective classic, Knives Out tells of a rich family patriarch who suddenly dies leaving behind a large fortune and a slew of toxic relatives. As the tagline says:
Hell, any of them could’ve done it.
This was my first true Rian Johnson film, second if you include Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I was drawn in from the start, as we get a running shot of the interior of Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) house, room by room, secret entrances included. Straight from your favorite whodunnit (or everyone’s favorite board game, Clue), the house is decorated in off-putting paintings, over the top grotesque statues and figurines and knives everywhere; fitting for a mystery novel writer like Harlan Thrombey.
Vivid in color despite what should be a drab setting, the movie is very visually appealing throughout. Objects in each scene’s background threaten to draw you away from what you should be focusing on, the main storyline and the events unfolding on the screen. I found myself straining to decipher the titles of books that adorned Thrombey’s shelves and attempting to interpret the meaning of the paintings that covered the house’s walls, all in an effort to find an extra clue that could lead me to the answer faster. Just like a whodunnit novel, the littlest things attempt to draw you away from the true answer.
Knives Out is fun, smart, clever and current without trying too hard. Johnson’s energetic script is complete from top to bottom; we get comedy, drama, nerve-racking moments and just about everything in between. Johnson’s ability to create a whodunnit with all of the necessary twists and surprises likens him to the newest author of the Sherlock Holme’s franchise, Anthony Horowitz (you can see my review of Horowitz’s latest whodunnit novel here).
He provides all the makings of your classic detective literature: the quirky investigator, the bumbling police force, a slew of people with motives, twists and turns, a Watson-esque helper in Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), and even an eerie setting. It starts with what seems like the perfect murder, framed as a suicide with no foul play expected. Things obviously get blurry from there and a full investigation at the hands of private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) begins.
Entertaining throughout, there is never a dull moment in this film. Clever dialogue keeps you captivated by the murder case details as Blanc deftly picks up things you might have missed. You love some characters, and hate others. Speculations and guesses will run through your mind as you race to solve the murder before the end, but everything is answered in a beautiful “aha!” moment. As masterfully done as Hercules Poirot himself, Detective Blanc touches on each of the cases clues, disproving the red herrings and bringing the case to its conclusion.
We are brought full circle on many fronts, most notably:
– Harlan’s notion that Ransom “wouldn’t know the difference between a stage prop and the real thing;” one of the first things we learn about Ransom is his self-centeredness and lack of attention to detail. This again comes to light as he attempts to kill Marta for exposing her, only to be done in by the fake knife he grabbed from one of Harlan’s many knife-based works of art.
– The Thrombey family, despite their incessant attempts to get “their” money back from Marta, end up in the same position they were left in the night of Harlan’s death – with zero right to the home or the inheritance. Thrombey’s wish of removing them all from his will and putting the only person in his circle to do right by him is granted when Marta is proven innocent of any connection to Harlan’s death.
– When Marta tells Ransom everything she knows about the murder, all he can say is how Harlan told him that Marta was the only person who could ever outsmart him and beat him at his favorite board game, Go. Just like in the board game, Marta was able to get the best of Ransom in this situation, outsmarting him in the end.
– The family, still hell-bent on getting their money is finally put in their place when Marta walks onto the front terrace holding Harlan’s “My House, My Rules, My Coffee!” mug. She is looking down on them, as they all constantly looked down on her throughout the film when it was revealed that she was Harlan’s only named heir. No dialogue necessary for this scene as you can see the look of pure shock on all of the Thrombey’s faces.
– Richard’s affair is revealed to Linda, as Harlan assured him it would be. The seemingly blank letter was actually a trick letter that only Linda would know how to interpret, exposing Richard for the creep he was.
Johnson’s writing is on-topic and relevant for today’s social climate. At first it seems like the film takes place in the 30’s or 40’s, thanks largely to the house where most of the film occurs. However, it happens in modern day, as often referenced via comedic pokes at the current state of life. Certain character’s entire existences revolve around their phones and their social media presence. We see characters use their phones as means of manipulation and deceit and on several occasions the crowd is treated to hilarious conversations between the two younger family members who refer to each other as ‘snowflake’ or ‘alt-right troll,’ phrases you could otherwise find on Twitter’s latest political debate thread.
Another scene, cringeworthy but accurate depicts a family discussion turned argument on one of America’s greatest recent debates: immigration. Richard (played by Don Johnson of Miami Vice/Nash Bridges fame) calls Marta, an immigrant herself, to the conversation and questions her in front of the group which draws very warranted groans and disapproval. While questioning her, he hands her his dirty plate without looking her in the eye. While it is masked in humor, these scene not only shows the lack of care for Marta as a human, but is an unfortunately current representation of how some people tend to treat “the help,” or the waitress at your favorite restaurant.
My one fault with the Knives Out script was the vomit scene at the end. Throughout the entire film we are spared from seeing Marta’s actual vomit whenever she tells a lie. I understand the significance of the moment and the intended reaction it was supposed to get, but to me it seemed gimmicky for a movie that didn’t need to try hard to make its point.
The film is cast exceptionally well, as each actor perfectly plays their respective character. You could say that Knives Out is carried by Daniel Craig as the protagonist, but you’d be wrong. You could also say that Chris Evans ability to switch between the easily-dislikable, then likable qualities of Ransom makes the movie what it is, but you’d also be wrong. What is right in all of this, is how beautifully the entire cast complements one another. The cast is a true work of art within this work of art, each character in this incredible ensemble accents each other character so perfectly that it’s hard to say that just one of the actors makes the entire movie. Rather, the accumulation of them all as a whole is what makes Knives Out so special. From our protagonists Detective Blanc and Marta Cabrera down to minor characters like the housekeeper Fran and the executor of will, played surprisingly by the legendary Frank Oz, each role is memorable.
We get our first glimpse into each of the characters almost instantly, as they gather at Harlan’s house, waiting to be interviewed by the police department about the events that transpired on the night of Harlan’s death. As they are interviewed, we get a brief but important insight into their backgrounds, their self-consciousness (or lack thereof), and the attributes that make up their personalities. Each character gives a brief background story, and retells their side of the evening.
These scenes are quick, as we jump from character to character. On each instance we see the night through their eyes, and the story’s changes are reflected each time based on what they say happened. As with any mystery, everyone has their alibi, their side of the events, and what they think could have happened. Characters show emotions ranging from anger to nervousness, some laugh and some cry, all the while under the scrutiny of the detective team. Again, Johnson shows a keen ability to capture all of the true aspects of a whodunnit with exceptional flair; this time gathering all of the suspects stories, red herrings and all.
While we’re getting our primary introduction of these characters, Johnson also makes each person seem guilty in a way, providing a possible motive for each character’s involvement in the case.
Benoit Blanc is quick-witted, yet slow-tongued, speaking in a traditional southern drawl. His references are obscure yet intelligent, and often other characters can be shown thinking about what he said, and what it could mean. A man who is full of self-confidence, Blanc never makes clear who he suspects of the murder. Most of his lines are humorous, but all are well-thought and contain meaning. Perhaps his funniest moment, steeped in metaphor, is his relation between the case and pastries:
“A donut hole in the donut’s hole. But we must look a little closer. And when we do, we see that the donut hole has a hole in its center – it is not a donut hole at all but a smaller donut with its own hole, and our donut is not whole at all!”
Craig may be at his best in this film; who’d’ve thought, a proper British man playing a charming Southerner. He’s believable and lovable, and if you didn’t know any better you’d think he’d never left Southern America. His ability to portray Blanc’s bright eccentricity and coy but superior sense of knowing set this role apart from any of Craig’s other roles that I’ve seen.
The family dynamic is hilarious and relatable for anyone with a large family. In all there are ten eccentric family members. Some are power hungry, some are greedy, some are along for the ride, and all of them want one thing: Harlan’s money.
Siblings squabble and fight. They throw slights both under their breaths and aloud for all to hear. Couples argue and fuss over their children. And above all of they come together on one common ground – ganging up on the outsiders, or as they call them: the help.
A family full of hypocrites, they consistently tell Marta how much they love her, only to have their true feelings exposed the instant that it is revealed Harlan left all of his money to her and her family. Their feigned love and respect for what she had done for their father is instantly turned to jealousy and a hell-bent desire to get ‘their’ money back.
Chris Evans (Ransom) continues to prove his range – he can either be America’s savior or the scumbag that everyone loves to hate, in this case the latter; Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda) plays a fiery businesswoman, seemingly self-made but not without her father’s initial million dollar investment; Michael Shannon (Walt) is short, curmudgeonly and impatient, a passenger on his father’s ride; Don Johnson (Richard) is cocky and sneaky, with no bounds for personal space or emotional awareness; Toni Collette (Joni) is bubbly and on the surface seems like the nicest family member, while in reality is a freeloader and thief of Harlan’s generous contributions to her daughters schooling. The two other grandchildren are quiet, judgmental and entertained by nothing other than their phones or a quick hit of the Juul.
Ana de Armas is lovely and believable as Marta Cabrera, Thrombey’s Latina (I don’t think the family ever agrees on which country she hails from) nurse and more importantly his friend. She is caring and sweet, so sweet she cannot lie without vomiting, as Blanc puts it, “you have a regurgitative reaction to mistruths.” Despite these characteristics, she also proves to be artful and cunning as she tries to throw Detective Blanc off her trail. To beat Ransom and the rest of the Thrombey family, she resorts to playing their own game of deceit.
As stated previously, the casting and the acting is flawless, and could be noted on in much greater depth were it not for the already lengthy quality of this post.
Knives Out was not only my favorite film of 2019, but will be one of my favorite movies for years to come. The perfect cast and setting compliment what was already an incredibly interesting script and stellar murder mystery.