“KNIVES OUT” A SHARPLY CUTTING TAKE ON A MURDER MYSTERY
A Film Review by Tim Riley
“KNIVES OUT” (Rated PG-13) A thoroughly modern makeover of a murder mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, “Knives Out” is a razor-sharp take on the classic elements of the genre with an all-star ensemble of thespians well-suited to delivering a stylish entertainment. The recipe for writer-director Rian Johnson’s whodunit is steeped in the timeless formula that undergirds most murder mysteries, namely taking a group of eccentrics, mixing with a handful of faithful staff, adding one dead body, and then letting a detective sort it out. The element of death is that of world-famous author and family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) on the night of his 85th birthday celebration at his gothic mansion attended by his extended family members.
As a successful mystery writer, Harlan may have been able to foresee how his death would play out during an investigation of what is either a suicide or a matter of foul play while relishing the havoc that would ensue for his covetous deadbeat relatives. Harlan’s snooty eldest daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a chip off the old block. A driven, self-made businesswoman, she shares much in common with her deceased father. But is it suspicious that she immediately resists the intrusion of a detective’s inquiry into family affairs?
Linda’s dashing husband, Richard (Don Johnson), is second-in-command at his wife’s successful real estate business. He certainly enjoys the privileges of wealth, and as a philanderer, he’s too slick not to be a suspect. The only son of Linda and Richard is Ransom (Chris Evans), an aimless, spoiled, trust fund kid. As the black sheep of the family without a moral compass, Ransom was overheard having a nasty argument with his grandfather on the night of the birthday party.
Harlan’s youngest son, Walt (Michael Shannon), maybe running the family publishing business but his inferiority complex is only heightened when his plans for a major expansion are torpedoed by Harlan’s refusal to cooperate. Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) seems on the verge of about to snap at any moment, and their rebellious son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), is a scowling prep school bad boy who trolls the internet.
The widow of Harlan’s deceased older son, Joni (Toni Collette), struggles to keep her lifestyle business afloat, while her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) needs financial aid for her college education. Both of them rely heavily on the largesse of the Thrombey fortune. Rounding out the Thrombey clan is the family’s eldest member, dear old Nana (K Callan), who’s so old no one even knows her age. Though a woman of few words, she could be more observant than anyone else, possibly aware of some important clues to solve the mystery.
The most relevant staff member in the household is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the daughter of undocumented immigrants. As Harlan’s trusted caregiver, she was possibly the last one to see him alive. What secret is she trying to conceal? The Hercule Poirot in this murder investigation is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a Southern-fried private eye who was mysteriously hired by an anonymous party to join Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) to interview all suspects.
The fact of a wound to Harlan’s neck and a knife still in his cold hand suggests an obvious open-and-shut case of suicide to the police lieutenant and state trooper. But to the renowned Benoit Blanc, that’s all too convenient as he suspects foul play. Interestingly, Blanc enlists the help of Marta, a doe-eyed innocent, who turns out to be incapable of telling a lie without uncontrollably vomiting. She proves a useful ally for the private eye to chip away at each family member’s dubious alibi.
Moreover, at least on the surface, Marta has less reason for any personal grievance or motive in the death of her beloved employer. Her job is secure with Harlan, and the claim of the Thrombey clan that she’s a member of the family is an obviously insincere sentiment. Even more importantly, the solicitous Marta appears to be the most normal person in the Thrombey household despite her propensity for an unnatural reaction to mendacity. As a result, should Marta be the likely one above suspicion?
The film has many flashbacks, but even knowing how Thrombey died is the only cause to raise more skepticism. Blanc refers to the case as one with a hole in the middle, referring to a donut hole that ends up with only more holes. One of the film’s best moments comes when the family lawyer (Frank Oz) gathers the entire Thrombey clan for a reading of Harlan’s will, which serves to trigger more acrimonious recriminations and harsh misgivings.
The joys of a good murder mystery are many, from the red herrings that grow more frequent and twisted to the layers of weirdness and eccentricities of the sycophantic family members under suspicion. “Knives Out,” which entertains with its witty dialogue and lively shenanigans delivered by delectably oddball characters, should spark a comeback for more whodunits that are just as clever.