Whodunits; the foundation (and go-to staple) of detective fiction fantasy. Set in manors or mansions or luxurious trains, a detective arrives to a murder and tries to find the culprit from within a small group of people. Red Herrings, revisions of clues, new perceptions, motives and a potentially guilty butler. It is a genre that can be done well or done badly, and yet still maintain a fun-factor within itself, depending on the game being played. Not-so ironically, we’ve even made a board game out of it (Clue/Cluedo). However the genre is for the most part quite exhausted, and many-a-times we either rehash what worked before or experiment on new ideas based on current events and culture in an attempt to bring in new audiences and spawn new generations of authors…Enter Rian Johnson’s Detective comedy Knives Out.
Set in the modern day (2019), our story revolves primarily around the Thrombey Mansion in Massachusetts, a home owned by the Thrombey family, or more specifically an acclaimed mystery novelist name Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). We begin with Fran the housekeeper (Edi Patterson), bringing Harlan his breakfast, which included a mug of coffee that read “My House, My Rules, My Coffee”. After not finding him in bed, she goes to find him in his study…dead. With a medium-sized knife clearly used as a weapon against his own jugular. We then find out that Harlan’s 85th Birthday Party happened the night before, which included Harlan’s Mother, Wanetta, (or “Great Nana” as the family calls her, played by K Callan) his children, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Walt (Michael Shannon), their spouses, Richard (Don Johnson) and Donna (Riki Lindhome), as well as Toni, the widow of Harlan’s middle son Neil, and Harlan’s grandchildren, Ransom (Chris Evans), Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell). In a Rashomon fashion, the family, housekeeper and Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) are questioned Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Laketh Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) about what happened, then in walks, or specifically, already seated, the world famous detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig). So we have an elderly man (and a mystery writer at that), who made a mass fortune, and nearly everybody (with exceptions) is convinced that it was suicide…everybody but Benoit Blanc. Obviously Harlan’s Will is due for an audience, but Blanc wants to prove to everyone…that this was a murder.
Now to see whodunit well in the building process:
The acting for the most part is excellent, with some of it at times being a real head-scratcher – in particular Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Benoit Blanc – French name, Southern American Accent…and I don’t mean Brazil, I mean Texan. It is a fine example of actors playing roles that are a far cry from what they’re known best for. In Craig’s case, James Bond, and in Chris Evans’ case…Captain America. Then we have other actors who could come as a surprise, considering their roles in both detective and horror fiction over the years. You have Jamie Lee Curtis from Halloween, Don Johnson from Miami Vice, Jaeden Martell from Stephen King’s IT, Toni Collette from The Sixth Sense, Katherine Langford for 13 Reasons Why…then of course, the Star Wars cast: Frank Oz (voice of Yoda) as Harlan’s Lawyer, Noah Segan (from The Last Jedi) as a secondary detective, and the fact that Rian Johnson directed The Last Jedi (for better or worse). I thought everybody played their roles well, from the most to the least of on-screen presence, and Ana de Armas was excellent as a main protagonist.
The Characters and Story are…fantastic. It was advertised as a Whodunit for a modern audience, and it very much delivers. Benoit Blanc It’s one of the most unique characters that I’ve seen, and enjoyable when you get past the potential mixture that lead to him – I see him as part Sherlock, part Columbo, part Maigret, and part Senator Claghorn (It’s the accent). Out of all the characters, Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, is by far the most loveable, and for good reason. One of the themes of the film is the passive discrimination within the United States of Latin-American residents…In fact this film is, in its own right, a political commentary holding up a mirror. In particular a commentary of today’s American (and possibly Western in general) politics or political or life views. The Thrombey Family, among other suspects, each represent a different side of American or western life: You have Money, Bounty and Opportunity (Harlan), the self-made (Linda), the hypocritical (Richard), the privileged but ungrateful (Ransom), the hard working underachiever (Walt), the non-confrontational good girl (Donna), the know-it-all imposer of one’s lifestyle (Toni), the Social Justice Warrior (Meg), The Alt-Right internet troll (Jacob), the seemingly oblivious (Great Nana) and of course the third party victims of circumstance (Fran, the housekeeper) and the immigrants trying to get on with their lives, which includes just being very good at their work (Marta). What brings all of the characters into the fire is Harlan…Because Harlan is money…he’s life…He’s the life-source for his children…and it’s making them all very screwed up, regardless of where they stand or what they think is correct…because they love money. They say “I love you” or “We love you” because when money is at stake, so are their lives, even Toni and Meg.
The music by Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin) is great! Especially in how it’s used in the film’s open shot with the dogs running away from the house in slow motion. It might be 1 of my favourite openings to a film now, and yet in sets the audience up for how they’re going to feel for the rest of the film – that this is going to be a quirky, kooky and darkly humorous experience. Then you have the music that isn’t Johnson’s. The film ends with Sweet Virginia by The Rolling Stones
The artistic decisions and cinematography reminded me of Wes Anderson, and when I saw the trailer, I assumed that Anderson was involved somehow, and was surprised by his absence. Every shot is well placed, and the presence of all the dolls/puppets/marionettes, as well as the colours of the walls and the lighting…you can smell the wood interior of the house without actually being there.
Would I recommend Knives Out? Yes! I loved this, and yes the experience of going into the film without knowing whodunit is gone. But I could return to this film easily because of how well produced the journey was, along with great dialogue, quirky characters, some likeable and others a detestable mirror of the world around us while they engage in arguments that are riddled with humorous hypocrisy.
CGI/Special Effects: ****