It’s a tried and true recipe: hire the best cast you can and put together a murder that only one of the assembled cast could have carried out. Insert a detective, an obviously smart but somewhat annoying persona (this time it’s because of the assumed southern drawl) and voila – a cozy Agatha Christie styled mystery.
Don’t be put off if you’re not a fan of the English cozy, this one ties in a little bit with the quirkiness through the updating of characters. Director Rian Johnson borrows from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel to create the atmosphere of the gathering in the old stately home – and it works.
Firstly, it’s a great script. Throw in the excellent cast all having fun hamming it up and you have a winner for the holiday season. Johnson has done double duty on this one, having written the script and directed – and he’s done a damn fine job.
Johnson has a great eye for a visual joke – he has a Game of Thrones style construction built up of knives which sits in the centre of his office. In fact, as the detective says, the whole house is designed like a game of Cluedo.
Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, patriarch and supporter of his family through the millions he’s earned through writing mystery novels. Jamie Lee Curtis is his eldest daughter and resembles him through his self-made ways (she is a realtor), supporting her cheating husband played by Don Johnson. They have a right-wing spawn (played by Jaeden Martell) towards whom one of the best lines in the film is directed.
Daniel Craig is brilliant as the detective Benoit Blanc. He steps well away from his 007 form and sits comfortably in his southerner charm. Though Harlan is first thought to have suicided, Blanc is summoned to the scene and announces “I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects” and, “The family is truly desperate. And when people get desperate, the knives come out.” He is ably supported by LaKeith Stanfield as his lieutenant.
Knives Out is somewhat of a pastiche of classic detectives, from Sherlock Holmes (with the repeated line, “the game’s afoot”), to Columbo with his “just one more thing”. There are car chases and mistaken identities, blackmail, the usual twists and then there is more.
Each of the cast members has a good motive for murder.
Knives Out tells the story of Harlan Thrombey who has called his family all together for his 85th birthday celebration, where he tells each one that he is cutting them off – he’s supported them long enough. His son Walt, played by Michael Shannon, runs the family publishing company from which his father is about to fire him, his son-in-law Richard (Johnson) has been cheating on his wife Linda, Linda (Curtis) owes him money, daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) has been embezzling funds and the next generation seems no better. Grandson, Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), has been told he is to be cut out of the will, granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford) is going to be cut off once her term finishes and the youngest grandson, “the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom”, is no more likeable than the others.
Ana de Armas plays Marta Cabera, the nurse who is the last person to legitimately see Harlan before his demise and has the fatal flaw of vomiting; if she tells a lie – a charm that the detective latches onto quickly.
The murder occurs very close to the start of the film and we are given the motives early on, but the twists and turns of the clever plot keep the audience engaged until the very end.
Overall, the witty script adds to the enjoyment. My favourite line is about Harlan’s nurse – the family can’t get her nationality right, they vacillate from calling her Ecuadorian, Uruguayan and Brazilian. When praising her, detective Don Johnson says, “Immigrants, they get the job done. From Hamilton…I saw it at The Public.”