Contains mild spoilers.
The morning after a party for his 85th birthday, held at his home and attended by his extended family, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Although apparently a suicide, the method (with Harlan slitting his own throat) is deemed unusual and somewhat suspicious. When law enforcement arrives, Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) are accompanied by a private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, sporting a deep south American accent); a man paid in cash, from a source unknown to him, to consult on the investigation.
As the detectives, clearly guided by Blanc – who begins to take over as the day progresses – begin to talk to the large family including Harlan’s daughter Linda and son-in-law Richard (Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), son Walt (Michael Shannon), daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford), personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), and, arriving later, grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) (also the son of Linda and Richard), the image of a joyous family party begins to darken. We learn that Harlan had a number of arguments with family members, most of which centred on his money/their inheritances, and accounts of which differ from family member to family member. Key details change with each retelling, with Marta – as a sufferer of a condition that forces her to vomit at the thought of lying – the only person Blanc chooses to rely upon.
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With a seemingly honest account of what took place coming to light late in act one, the film then takes a wonderful series of turns to show how a demonstrably accurate retelling of events can yet not be all as it seems. With the family starting to show cracks in their united front, and the fractious relationships many of them had with Harlan coming to light, Blanc must piece together the motives and opportunities to lead him to the full story.
With Martin Scorsese teaming with Robert De Niro to produce a genuine classic in The Irishman, and awards season in early-2019 including such political fare as Vice and The Front Runner, we could be forgiven for wondering what decade we are in. Films such as Knives Out were very common in the 1970s: all-star casts taken to a picturesque location, or grand mansion, and involved in a murder mystery presided over by a legendary detective. Although there has been a remake of Murder on the Orient Express in recent years, broadly speaking they don’t make them like this too often anymore. Back when they did make them, they never made them this funny, and rarely did they intercut the characters so playfully.
The first masterstroke of this film is to heavily intercut the initial testimonies of the characters over the opening minutes of the film. With each character answering similar enquiries, we are able to learn about our cast very quickly. Linda feels like the head of the family, in Harlan’s absence; her husband Richard is thoughtless – getting details given in his wife’s account wrong (and then getting those same details even more wrong later in the film); he is also revealed later as deeply closed-minded. Walt seems to be hiding details of his conversations with his father from the party, and Joni seems airheaded, and possibly she is hanging around – years after the death of her husband – due solely to the family’s wealth.
Little details distinguish the early exchanges, without punishing any viewer who fails to notice: along with subtle differences in accounts, slightly different takes of scenes accompanying different testimonies, and even who is standing by Harlan when he blows out the candles on his cake varying each time we see it, we see one of the detectives able to give us extra background on Harlan and his work, through the amusing device of having him be a huge fan of the late man’s books. Unlike many of the 70’s films based on Agatha Christie novels, writer and director Rian Johnson has made it a priority to give all the cast ample time very early in the film’s running time, and to make them, as far as possible with such a large cast, as three-dimensional as possible.
On the level of plot and tone, the film gives one reasonably subtle hint early on that all will not quite turn out as it seems, but then seeks to avoid having the audience tie itself in knots trying to keep up. The story is kept logical, consistent and engaging. Importantly, it leads to a conclusion that doesn’t feel dropped in out of nowhere. When done badly, such exercises can lead to the killer being the last possible person you’d expect, then that reveal is followed by a tortuous retrofit of the events we have just seen. Although the hint referred to above is the one fairly big clue, it is more than possible to remember a number of moments in the film that were telling the audience who it may be. Blind alleys and red herrings are kept to a relative minimum, meaning the script is genuinely smart, without ever behaving like it knows it is smart. All of this is wrapped in a film that is extremely funny. Dialogue is sharp, and interplay between characters sparky and full of life.
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The key strength of Knives Out is in how much fun the cast are having. Rian Johnson’s efforts to create rounded characters are repaid by a group that is clearly having a wonderful time with this, and none more so than Daniel Craig. Craig positively eats up the complex, layered, and often hilarious dialogue he is given, and shows a playfulness we’ve seen rarely from him. With genius detectives not being unusual in TV and cinema history, that Blanc arrives so distinctive in manner and method is a fine achievement. He is serious and business-like, but there is also something of the comedic about his tastes and mannerisms (Craig singing along to music in a car late in the film being a genuine highlight), without the authority of the character being undermined. With many of his scenes playing in close-up, it is impossible not to note the relish with which the actor is playing his part.
Knives Out is an energising experience, and a film that lingers in the mind for hours after viewing. Very little at the cinema this year has been this much fun to watch, or looked this much fun to make. With a throwback feel that combines a bit of Agatha Christie, a little Woody Allen, a touch of Robert Altman, the merest hint of Blake Edwards, and components that are pure Rian Johnson, this is a very fine film, and one that may just mark a decisive change of career direction both for Johnson and for Daniel Craig. It would be very welcome to see more from this particular detective.