By Carolyn Hinds
What do The Hounds of Baskersville, Inspector Poirot, Clue, Get Out, and practically every telenovela ever made and possibly Poldark (yes, really) have in common? They’re just some of the references that writer and director Rian Johnson used with hilarious and effective abandon in his new crime mystery Knives Out.
Like any typical whodunnit crime thriller featured on Masterpiece Theatre, Knives Out begins with the death of extremely wealthy senior-citizen Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose body is discovered in his lavishly and eccentrically decorated ante chamber by the housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Of course, the death is ruled a suicide by the local police because that’s what it appears to be at first, second and third glance.
Going by the evidence as they see it local cops Lt. Elliott (Lakeith Stansfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Seagan) question Harlan’s family, who were all in attendance for his birthday party. After determining the evidence does point to Harlan taking his life — though there were no signs anything was amiss before the day’s events — they prepare to close the case. However, the arrival of Daniel Craig as private detective Benoit Blanc makes them change their plans. With his sardonic smirk, slow southern drawl and ever-present cigar, Blanc declares the matter to be far from over, as he was hired by someone with close knowledge of the case to investigate Harlan’s murder.
If you’ve ever seen an episode of Murder She Wrote, you know that nothing is at it seems, and everyone is a suspect.
Knives Out is packed with star power, featuring some of the most popular actors playing Harlan’s family members. There’s his only daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), a no-nonsense business woman who runs her own company; her son Ransom (HEH!) the typical near-do-well rich boy played by Chris Evans; and her husband Richard (Don Johnson). Linda’s little brother Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the family publishing company created through Harlan’s earnings as a best selling mystery writer; sister-in-law Joni (Toni Colette) is the flighty type who doesn’t know how to manage money; and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) is a well meaning Ivy Leaguer who seems increasingly disingenuous the harder she tries to be nice to Harlan’s Personal Support Worker, Marta Cabrera, played wonderfully by Ana de Armas.
With a script and plot that relies on countless twists and turns, Johnson needed a cast that could not only keep audiences interested and entertained, but one that would play his characters perfectly so they mattered. Audiences had to care about what they said and did because everything was a clue to solving the mystery. Having such a large ensemble cast, things can get tricky, and giving everyone adequate time is a delicate balancing act. Johnson does an admirable job, but it’s the performances by de Armas, Craig and Curtis that hold it all together.
As Marta, de Armas holds her own as the lead surrounded by veteran actors known for stellar performances. She’s fantastic and tries to solve the mystery alongside the audience, while also seeming somewhat suspicious and placing doubt in the audience’s mind. This is impressive for a character that physically can’t lie. (There’s a funny reason for this, but I don’t want to spoil it.)
Though it would be easy to have Benoit become a caricature as a condescending know-it-all, Daniel Craig knows how to tow the line by using the smug air he’s known for with James Bond, and tying it with the inquisitiveness of a detective trying to put all the puzzle pieces together. Curtis’s Linda is the de-facto matriarch of the family who has to control — or minimize the effects — of their actions as they all have their own agendas, and they all see Harlan’s money as the way to achieve them. As a woman who created her own company from scratch, she can be stern and commanding when necessary, but this isn’t all there is to her. In a pleasant surprise, Linda also has a soft side which she’s not afraid to show, especially where her father is concerned.
Knives Out is a very well written film with characters that deliver insults that are as sharp and cutting as the title implies. There is, however, one flaw: a running joke related to Marta’s nationality. Almost from the beginning of the film, everyone in Harlan’s family find some reason to mention where Marta is from, but it’s never the right country. This is supposed to serve as a commentary on how White Americans — particularly wealthy ones — can have someone working for them for years, and never know anything about them aside from their name. And while this joke worked the first few times, it became stale and eventually seemed more like a mockery of Marta than the Thrombeys and Drysdales. It would have been great if, by the end, we actually found out where she was from.
With the multitude of call backs in the dialogue, a grand house with set design that would be right at home on an English moor, and characters that make you question every move they make, there is no doubt that Knives Out is an homage to the mystery genre and one of the most entertaining films of the year. Johnson keeps the pace flowing evenly by never revealing too much and actually making the situation more complicated as the film draws to its conclusion. The script is witty, the acting is top notch, and I still believe it was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.
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