A faux-gothic mansion stands tall, centre-stage and daunting, as two dogs rush through its fog-shrouded grounds. Viewers will likely be reminded of games of Clue, Murder on the Orient Express and, especially, The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is our opening shot, the scene of our crime, and, if you’ll come with me, my dear Watson, I will direct you to the late master of the house. You will find that this tale is in no way elementary.
Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a wonderfully contemporary spin on the Agatha Christie-style murder-mystery that will have audiences laughing at its sharp self-awareness and excellent dialogue.
It has all the accoutrements of its genre; a star-studded cast, the eccentric Sherlock Holmes- like intrigue and a classic whodunnit storyline.
There is also a simple beauty to the film, with Steve Yedlin in charge of the cinematography. Tight-angled close-ups emphasise the actors’ expressions, and there’s beautiful symmetry which, at times, reminds of the work of Roger Deakins (the English cinematographer whose credits include Skyfall, Bladerunner 2049 and a string of Coen brothers’ films).
Acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, his throat slit in an apparent suicide after the night of his 85th birthday. Interwoven plotlines and multiple motives abound in the film’s first act – then the script is flipped.
Johnson pulls the rug out from under viewers and reveals the murderer early on. But this only adds to the intrigue as the Thrombey family implodes from the repercussions of their patriarch’s death.
Murder-mystery fans will find the movie strikingly modern. Johnson’s reverence for the genre, combined with a willingness to tinker with its tropes and formula, make the familiar footfalls feel fresh.
The cast, working with a tight and exuberant script, is excellent. Among the large Thrombey brood, Chris Evans (Captain America) plays against type as Ransom Drysdale, the black sheep of the family, while Jamie Lee Curtis is his business-savvy, controlling mother, with her submissive husband (Don Johnson) in tow, and Michael Shannon plays Plummer’s weak-willed son.
Australian Toni Collette stars, too, as Joni Thrombey, Harlan’s daughter-in-law and a money-hungry fashionista. The role sees Collette take on a vapid, sinkhole of a character, providing numerous laughs every time she is on screen.
An exaggerated Southern drawl highlights the absurd portrayal of Detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig. Blanc, who dresses in a tweed suit, loud ties and braces, is a riot, stepping directly from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel.
He is steadied by a believable and heartfelt performance from Ana De Armas as Plummer’s caretaker and nurse, Marta Cabrera – whom he affectionately terms his Watson – a character who speaks to the film’s commentary on class warfare and national identity.
Without offering spoilers, all that can be said is that Johnson delivers the murder-mystery goods, with revelry in the performances and a clear love for the craft of a good whodunnit. Knives Out is an excellent film that is sharp in its wit and enormously entertaining.
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