For any mystery-film fan, Rian Johnson’s star-studded whodunnit, Knives Out, is a must-see. It stands up against the best of the genre, like the superb Agatha Christie films of the 1970s and ‘80s—Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Murder on the Orient Express. And it far surpasses the recent inferior remake of the last named. Hang up your oversized mustache, Kenneth Branagh, there’s a new Poirot in town—Benoit Blanc—sans mustache and perfectly played by Daniel Craig.
Knives Out has all the usual tropes for a good murder mystery—big house, wealthy victim, slew of suspects with strong motives for murder, reading of the victim’s will, and an eccentric detective. The film begins with a pair of barking dogs running in slow-motion through the fog, an imposing mansion in the background. The shot fairly screams “The Hound of the
Baskervilles” and is the first of several Sherlock Holmes homages throughout the film. Next we see a maid bringing breakfast to her employer, the famous mystery author Harlan Thrombey, only to find him in his study with throat slit in a pool of blood.
This opening scene tells the viewer exactly what they are in for. Your typical murder mystery . . . well, almost. Instead of screaming and dropping the breakfast tray upon discovering the body (like many an episode of the British TV series Midsomer Murders), the maid fumbles with the tray awkwardly and exclaims, “Shit!” This is not your grandmother’s Agatha Christie.
Cut to several days later when the police have come to interview the family, despite what appears to be an open-and-shut case of suicide. What follows is a series of interrogation scenes where the family members of the late Harlan Thrombey tell the police one story and we the audience get to see what really happened, through a series of revealing flashbacks. We soon learn that each of them had good reason to kill Harlan. And what about Harlan’s faithful nurse, Marta?
Johnson’s Oscar-nominated original screenplay twists and turns, keeping us guessing. Was it a suicide? Was it an accident? Or was it pre-meditated murder? The film feels like it’s from another decade yet at the same time plucked from today’s headlines.
The issue of immigration is front and center, and the film gets political on more than one occasion, notably in a heated discussion during Harlan’s 85th birthday party. The script is packed with humor as well, from Marta’s inability to tell a lie
without vomiting, to references to TV shows like Murder, She Wrote and Hallmark Mysteries to Daniel Craig doing car karaoke to Sondheim’s torch song “Losing My Mind.”
And speaking of Craig, his detective Benoit Blanc is relaxed, fallible, and funny, a far cry from his brooding and intense James Bond. With a knowing smile belying his cool blue eyes,
Craig seems to be having a ball in this film. Whether pounding a single piano key during the interrogation sequences (much to the annoyance of the suspects) or playfully spouting vintage dialogue like “The game is afoot, eh, Watson?” in a Colonel Sanders southern drawl, Benoit is a modern, American Sherlock Holmes. And while the character of Benoit plays head games with the murder suspects, it feels as if Craig is simultaneously toying with us (the audience) and shaking off any pre-conceived 007 baggage.
The supporting cast is excellent, playing their quirky characters to the utmost without ever crossing into cliche. Christopher Plummer is pitch-perfect as Harlan Thrombey, and deftly manages to be cruel and hateful in one scene and lovable and
noble in the next. Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Harlan’s eldest daughter, is at her tight-lipped, controlled best in the first quarter of the film then smoothly transitions into a simmering pot before boiling over later in the story. Don Johnson is understated but completely believable as Richard, Linda’s riding-on-her coattails husband. Chris Evans plays (to the hilt)
Harlan’s grandson, a spoiled, obnoxious bad boy. Michael Shannon as Walt, the youngest son and CEO of his father’s publishing empire, steals each moment the camera is on him. Twitchy, sweaty and desperate, his work in the confrontation scene at Marta’s apartment building is particularly chilling. Toni Collette as Joni, a skincare and lifestyle influencer, provides comedic balance to her more serious daughter Megan, played by Katherine Langford. They are joined by Jaeden Martell, K Callan, Lakeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz, Edi Patterson, and Noah Segan (hilarious as a goofy cop and die-hard fan of Harlan Thrombey’s books).
If Manhattan is the fifth lady in Sex and the City, then Thrombey Mansion is the last family member in Knives Out. The myriad of unusual objects filling the meticulously macabre house was conceivably inspired by (or inspiration for) Harlan’s novels, including the imposing wheel of knives that is the metaphorical “donut” Benoit keeps referring to.
The great surprise of the film (no spoilers here) is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera. I had never seen her before, so watching her in Knives Out felt like the debut of a new star. She is the emotional center of the film but never relies on overacting. Her Marta is believably sensitive, smart, caring, and cunning. We are with her every step (and misstep) of the mystery. Even when we are convinced of our heroine’s guilt and she is covering her tracks, destroying evidence along the way, we are on her side and in her shoes.
Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, Dig a Little Deeper.