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05 December 2022

Knives Out (2019)

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Music: Nathan Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas,
Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson,
Chris Evans, Michel Shannon,
Toni Collette, Katherine Langford,
LaKeith Stanfield, Noah Segan,
Edi Patterson, Frank Oz,
K Callan, Emmet Walsh,
Marlene Forte
Christopher Plummer

Call me a pushover for a good murder mystery. This is not a ‘thriller’ as Ne le dis à personne however; it’s just the most Agatha Christie film that Agatha Christie never wrote.

Knives Out opens with a large country home set amidst beautifully manicured gardens, and lovely wooded trails. Early morning, Fran (Edi Patterson), the housekeeper goes up with the patriarch’s morning tea. Only to find him in his study, his throat slit and the knife still in his lifeless hands.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a widely popular mystery writer, had just celebrated his 85th birthday the previous evening. They had all seen him go up to bed. So, how did Harlan die? Well, that’s what Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) have come to find out. 

From the looks of it, Harlan committed suicide. But who commits suicide by slitting their own throat? Still, the lieutenant and the trooper are just there to tie the ends up and so, they make enquiries of the family – Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s daughter; Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), her husband; Walter Thrombey (Michel Shannon); his wife, Donna (Riki Lindhome) Joni (Toni Collette), Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law; her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford). And, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse.

Linda runs her own company which Harlan helped her set up. Walt heads the publishing house Harlan owned. Joni depends on Harlan to subsidise her lifestyle and for her daughter’s education. Everything, they all assure the lieutenant, is hunky dory. They all loved Harlan, and he loved them.

The lieutenant is perfectly ready to close the case – the family’s alibis check out; so does the timing. After all, there’s no way someone could have crept up the creaky stairs to Harlan’s study to kill him without making a noise and then leave without anyone noticing him or her.

However, he’s reckoned without Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, with a smooth as butter deep South drawl), a famous private investigator. So famous that The New Yorker magazine had profiled him. So famous that the lieutenant is more than willing to have him poke his nose in. It turns out that Blanc is interested in this case because someone hired him. Who, he has no idea. 

However, he is sure that the family are all lying through their teeth. Linda, who claims to be a self-made business woman, when her father funded her business. Richard, who had an argument with his father-in-law who was overheard by the caterer, saying, ‘If you don’t tell her, I will.’ Walt, who has been told by his father that he need no longer handle the publishing company. Joni, who has been told that she will not get a single penny from her father-in-law, who has discovered her financial chicanery. 

Ransom (Chris Evans), the black sheep of the family, who was overheard having an argument with his grandfather about his will. Every single person had lied, and/or tried to deflect blame.  

Everyone, except Marta, that is, who just cannot lie even if she wants to. So, Blanc decides that Marta can assist him to solve this case. After all, she knows the family more than most. Besides, she was Harlan’s closest confidante. And… she has nothing to gain from his death.

Or… does she?

Knives Out is a wildly entertaining film. Filmed exclusively in Massachusetts, director Rian Johnson keeps such a taut hold on the proceedings that it is hard to figure out just what is happening, why and how. Like any good Agatha Christie murder mystery, Knives Out also has plenty of red herrings. However, Johnson leavens it with dollops of humour, interspersed with great social commentary. While Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas have the meatiest parts to play and lift the great script higher, the gifted ensemble cast bring their best to this wild ride.

Don Johnson, for instance, gets a great scene where he expounds on the prevailing ‘America for Americans’ rhetoric, but then pulls Marta in to help make his point for him. Marta, whom all the family claim to treat as a family member, but not one of them even knows which South American country she is from. 

Meg, who is truly sympathetic to Marta, until she finds herself in a pickle. Jamie Lee Curtis, as Linda, is kind to Marta, until she accuses Marta of sleeping with her father. Michel Shannon plays Walt, weak, snivelling Walt, who’s not above trying a little bit of emotional blackmail. Chris Evans, as Ransom, oozes elitism and faux sympathy.

Daniel Craig steps away from being James Bond to have fun turning himself into a hard-boiled private investigator from Louisiana, southern drawl well in place. (It’s a great bit of voice acting!) And while his Benoit Blanc is a larger-than-life PI whom even the local police defer to, Craig does not turn him into a caricature. Even when his excitement at figuring things out is audible in his voice, or he is being humorously sarcastic at the expense of one of the characters, it is not over the top.

And finally, Ana de Armas as the educated daughter of an illegal immigrant, caught in a web not of her own making. Who can she trust? Armas expresses both the vulnerability and resilience of Marta. She is the only person who is not invested in Harlan for what she can get out of him. When circumstances force her into lie after lie, it is Harlan’s advice that keeps her going – that, and as Blanc points out, her kind heart.

A shout out for the music by Nathan Johnson. It complements the script, heightening and diffusing tension where necessary, never intrusive but it cannot be ignored either. Set design, camera and editing all show what teamwork can do for a great script and performers. But finally, it is a director’s film – writer director Rian Johnson gives us a beautifully wrought plot, peopled with characters we care for. A deadpan humour is built into the script and the actors spit them out with relish. This film was definitely worth revisiting and I am looking forward to Glass Onion, the second film to feature Benoit Blanc, and which reviewers are claiming is better than Knives Out. If that is so, the director, who’s a self-avowed Agatha Christie fan, has set a very high bar indeed for the next film in the series.

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