For his palate-cleansing project between Star Wars movies, Rian Johnson clearly decided to cut loose and have some fun. Knives Out is a country house murder mystery which bends a knee at the altar of Agatha Christie but ramps up the sly comedy and litters the proceedings with slippery red herrings. It’s a blast: a finely-tuned romp which, although it takes the conventions of the genre very seriously, has no such reverence when it comes to its own filmmaking approach. Overacting is positively encouraged and the production design is littered with wittily repurposed instruments of death.
Director Rian Johnson
Marta Ana de Armas
Jacob Thrombey Jaeden Martell
Ransom Drysdale Chris Evans
Meg Thrombey Katherine Langford
Joni Thrombey Toni Collette
Benoit Blanc Daniel Craig
Linda Drysdale Jamie Lee Curtis
Fran Edi Patterson
Walt Thrombey Michael Shannon
Harlan Thrombey Christopher Plummer
Richard Drysdale Don Johnson
Lt Elliott LaKeith Stanfield
Trooper Wagner Noah Segan
The screenplay, written by Johnson, nods to the shifting prisms of perspective of Rashomon in its knotty exploration of the apparent suicide of successful crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), on the evening of his 85th birthday party. But it diverges from the conventions of the genre by revealing early on what really happened. The suspense comes from the increasing likelihood that the burden of guilt will come to rest upon an innocent party. Otherwise, all the ingredients for a crime mystery are present and correct: almost as many murder motives as there are characters; a Gothic mansion packed to the rafters with familial grudges, a suave detective and a score full of stabbing strings and paranoia.
When Harlan is discovered, his throat slit and the knife in his hand, the police investigation is assumed to be a formality. But accompanying the two local cops (a tasty double act of LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan, which in any other picture might have stolen every scene) who question the family in the aftermath is a shadowy figure, silhouetted against the window. It’s a terrific introduction to a character. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, chewing over the evidence as well as a flamboyant Southern accent) at first says nothing, but guides the interrogation by interrupting with a single imperious high note on the family’s piano whenever the questioning is not to his liking.
Key suspects include Harlan’s children Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs the family publishing company; Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who, with her synthetically charming husband Richard (Don Johnson), heads a successful company. Linda and Richard’s son Ranson (Chris Evans) is a noxious playboy who swans through life on a slipstream of entitlement; Walt’s son is a teenage neo-Nazi given to furtive activities in various alt right chatrooms and in the family’s bathrooms. Then there’s new age internet influencer Joni (Toni Collette), Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law, who considers herself to be very much still part of the family, particularly its financial arrangements. And finally, there’s Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse. The family makes a big show of including her in the celebration but none of them can remember which Central American country she hails from.
There’s perhaps the hint of a political subtext to the picture – divisions between socio-economic classes are glaring, the rich are pampered and superficial, the poor are decent and worthy, and there’s a tempting possibility of the redistribution of wealth. But any message here comes a distant second place to the main aim of the picture: delivering a slickly packaged, riotously entertaining good time.