Back on 12/15/2019, I finally got around to seeing Rian Johnson’s modern update on the throwback whodunnit mystery genre, Knives Out. It’s not the kind of movie you see very often these days, and one whose heyday seems to have long-since passed. It stars Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, a world-renowned detective brought into a seemingly open-and-shut case of suicide and finding out that not everything is as it seems.
I’ll try to remain spoiler-free until I don’t, but I’ll have a significant warning when things turn spoilery, don’t worry.
So the basic story is that acclaimed (and super-wealthy) author Harlan Thrombey (Christoper Plummer) is found by his caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas) with his throat slit the day after his 85th birthday. All the physical evidence and testimony of the family seems to indicate a suicide. His family includes his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son-in law Morris (Don Johnson), second daughter Joni (Toni Collette), son Walt (Michael Shannon), daughter-in-law Donna (Rikki Lindhome), grandchildren Ransom (Chris Evans) and Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher), and mother (K Callan). Rounding out the more important and involved cast members are Harlan’s housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), and local detective Archer (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan).
Look, it’s a murder mystery, so you’ve got to have a lot of characters in play, right?
The movie has surprises a’plenty, perhaps none bigger than the fact that, among all of these big stars, de Armas’ Marta is the leading role. While she is no stranger to the family, she is the outsider character who acts as the viewer’s “in” to everything. And honestly? She knocks it out of the park. A lesser talent might let the power of the stars around her dim her own glow, but de Armas is magnificent, empathetic, and commanding when she needs to be.
But really, everyone is great. There’s no weak spots in the cast. Some characters are given more to do than others, but you can only accommodate so much screen time for each star. I want to say something like “Michael Shannon really stood out every time he was on camera”, but so did Evans. And so did Collette. And so did Curtis. And it goes on. You can reach out towards the screen and feel how much joy everyone is taking in this clever script.
I’ve seen a weak point noted as Craig’s swampland South accent. But honestly, it’s only distracting for a bit, and the commercials and trailers for this movie I saw beforehand mitigated it for me. If you know Craig and haven’t seen ANY advertising for this flick, his voice might throw you, but I got used to it right quick. It was just a fun turn for him. He, perhaps more than everyone else, just came off as having such a ball with his character.
And the reason there’s so much glee in the actors is that the film isn’t just a tangled noir; it’s also a partial comedy. Not that there is anything wrong with a straight mystery thriller, but Johnson’s script makes a ton of room for over-the-top reactions, sight gags, and coy one-liners to let the air out at all the right moments.
Knives Out is one of those movies that I really want to see again because I’m sure there are details I missed, both in the dialogue and in the setting. I strongly imagine one viewing won’t be enough to have caught everything. Every character has a motive. Lies are spun, tied to truths. Details are presented quickly and not lingered upon. Everything is very tight and well-crafted.
All right, so on a last spoiler-free note–it’s hard to talk much about this movie without getting into details–I will say that I really recommend seeing this flick at least once.
And with that… ON TO THE SPOILERS:
The biggest twist Knives Out throws at you is probably the last one you would expect going in: About thirty minutes in, the movie shows you how Harlan died and who was involved. There are kinks to work out and missing pieces of information to receive, but Marta herself reveals how she accidentally dosed Harlan with the wrong amount of morphine at bedtime. An at-peace Harlan then walks Marta through staging his coming death as a suicide so that there aren’t any legal ramifications for Marta’s mother, an undocumented immigrant.
So you go in expecting a long, unraveling tale that eventually leads to the reveal of a cruel, greedy murderer. What the movies gives you instead is the tale of a grief-wracked girl trying to cover up her tragic mistake at the victim’s behest, all to spare her family.
Sounds just a like a breezy comedy flick, right?! Eh, it all works. Everything feels natural when the crazier moments take their spots.
Marta spends most of her screen time interacting with either Harlan, Blanc, or Ransom, and she holds her own with each in a different way. Her dynamic with Harlan is endearing and playful; with Blanc it is more goofy, but intense as she fights to stay ahead of him; finally with Ransom, there is a genuine feeling of trust and chemistry…
Until of course the weakest part of the movie, when it’s revealed that Ransom is the villain all along. It’s not that the story doesn’t work to take you there, but more in that Ransom sticks out separately from the family the whole time. While they are all rounded characters, they are basically one amorphous unit once the story kicks into gear; Ransom is the only outlier, and his sudden taking of Marta under his wing instantly makes you think, “well, there’s something nefarious here”. There’s just not enough physical separation from, say, Walt to Joni to Linda to make you think they are actively involved in the climax. Not that the movie is predictable, but it doesn’t let enough characters have their own individual breaks to lead the viewer on.
If we had seen more of any of these folks breaking off and doing some personal work, it might make them feel like they were more in-play for the movie’s back half.
The story rounds out to a proper happy ending… to a degree. Ransom’s plot to get re-inherited and punish Marta is uncovered. The horrible family gets their just desserts as Marta is left all of Harlan’s estate. And Marta is revealed to have NOT accidentally overdosed Harlan because she is instinctively a good nurse. The unfortunate downside being that since Marta DIDN’T do anything wrong, poor Harlan slit his own throat (part of the suicide cover up) for nothing. It’s the portrait of bittersweet because it lulls you into thinking everything worked out until you consider what that actually means.
All told, this was an incredibly well-rounded piece of cinema that did everything right. It was witty without becoming corny. It was tense without being frustrating. The characters were fun and brilliantly enhanced by the performers behind them. It absolutely could have finished inside my Top Ten of the 2010’s if we had held off on that until this month.
I’ve got to work on seeing it again before it leaves theaters, and I recommend you see it at least once, too.