Rian Johnson’s star-spangled, whodunnit mystery is packed with wit, humour and more twists than you can shake a fist at, in an intriguing homage to the detective novel that deserves to become a genre classic.
When the Thrombey family gather to celebrate Harlan’s (Christopher Plummer) 85th birthday, little do any of them know that their lives are all about to turn upside down within the space of a few hours. By the end of the night, Harlan is dead by apparent suicide and the family begins a freefall that will have unexpected consequences for all of them. Enter the fantastically named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, giving the rich Southern accent his all), a “detective of great renown” who has been hired by an unknown person to look further into Harlan’s death.
The Thrombey family is large and complicated, and Johnson manages to avoid lengthy and tedious exposition by starting a week after the death, when the police arrive to re-interview about everyone’s movements on the night of the party, allowing each character to be introduced one at a time. There’s Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) resplendent in power suits of increasingly garish colours, the eldest and most cutting of the siblings, her husband Richard (Don Johnson) who has secrets of his own. Michael Shannon plays Walt, the CEO of the Thrombey publishing empire with a drinking problem and a deep-seated bitterness towards his father, and an unnervingly quiet and “alt-right troll” of a son Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Toni Collette is brilliantly and incredibly grating as Joni, daughter-in-law to Harlan and a beauty guru.
The standout performances in Knives Out, however, belong to Ana de Armas and Chris Evans, who hold down the very centre of the film, while Daniel Craig is clearly loving the role of the mysterious, slightly eccentric detective. Evans is borderline repellent as Hugh (aka. Ransom) Thrombey, a self-centred rich boy who pays little attention to anyone else, and whose arrogance is as big as his sense of self-importance. It is de Armas, however, as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse and his only true friend in the house, who is the heart and soul of the film. Marta quickly becomes embroiled in the mystery as it is made clear that she had more than a supporting role in the events of that night and Blanc takes an interest in her and her opinions straight away.
In a family full of people desperate to hold on to the life they feel they deserve Marta is the only person without motive in her friendship with Harlan. In flashbacks throughout the film, we see their relationship as one of companionship than that of employer and employee – Marta sits in a comfortable chair, reading Harlan’s old books while he deals with business in the study, and they have long, ongoing games of Go. They share a sense of loyalty, and more than anything, Harlan is seemingly the only person in the household that values Marta and treats her with respect.
Ana de Armas shines as Marta – she is utterly devasted by the death of Harlan, in a much more emotional sense than the rest of the family. Her expressive eyes are often the focus of Johnson’s camera, brimming with tears that threaten to fall, and during one particular shot it is hard not have a lump in your throat as she faces the camera, hands clasped over her mouth as she begins to shake.
The film looks and feels like a boardgame come to life, in the best possible way. There is a sharpness to every image, and it could be easy to see the characters as paintings lifted from the walls of the mansion, so strikingly are they presented – with a special mention to Ransom’s knitted jumper.
Knives Out manages to blend the comedy and mystery with a take-down of the wealthy, arrogant Thrombey family – their superiority and marvel at their own embracing of Marta as “one of the family” quickly turns sour at any sign that their own fortunes are in any danger. It is properly enjoyavble genre fun.
Knives Out is in UK and US Cinemas now.