Film review: Slick murder mystery Knives Out is no Christmas turkey
Ever one to subvert expectations, Rian Johnson carves up a delicious ode to the classic whodunnit with a wonderful ensemble in tow.
With Christmas around the corner, it may be time to dust off those board games for some post-turkey family fun. And you could do worse than grabbing Cluedo for a classic game of whodunnit! The aim of the game? To solve a murder, with a combination of guess-work, trial & error and the luck of the dice.
Created in 1943, the game came hot on the heels of a particularly fruitful time for crime fiction, with a string of hits from the “Queen of Crime” Agatha Christie, including the best-selling mystery novel And Then There Were None in 1939. Responsible for famed fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s fingerprints are all over this modern-take on the mystery tale from Rian Johnson (pun absolutely intended). Whether it be the board game, the books, or the box office, playing along and guessing the culprit is an immense part of what makes these stories so attractive.
In Knives Out wealthy crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is celebrating his 85th birthday, but with his bickering extended family joining the party, the celebration proves to be short lived after Harlan is found dead, with his throat cut. Cue Detective Elliott (Lakeith Standfield) and private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arriving at the scene of the crime.
And what a scene it is. A stunning, gothic mansion that almost seems to reach back towards the 19th Century when gothic-revival and (loosely) Victorian architecture dominated the North American landscape. The house looks suitably mysterious, and at times appears to be both bafflingly large and yet intensely oppressive. It conjures up images of both pious religion and paganism.
It works wonderfully as a setting for Blanc and his southern draaaawl.
Blanc is so preposterous and yet so much fun thanks to Daniel Craig’s surprisingly natural comedic talent. Craig manages to capture some of the best TV detectives: the eccentricity of David Suchet’s Poirot, the geniality of Peter Falk’s Columbo and even Leslie Nielsen’s bumbling, oblivious detective Frank Drebin from the Naked Gun series.
With Blanc lurking in the background, Detective Elliott grills the family, introducing the audience to each character via a sort of reality-TV-type speed round of interviews to camera. All uniquely awful, they’re a microcosm of modern America. Toni Collette plays a spiritually ‘woke’ mum with a taste for the high life, whilst Chris Evans is a spoilt, college-bro type. There’s even a quiet, creepy phone-addicted teenager who happens to be an alt-right troll. They’re somewhere between the loveable band of misfits in The Royal Tenenbaums and Logan Roy’s unpleasant, uber-modern extended family in Succession. And, as the title suggests, the knives are out.
With such a variety of characters on screen, the laughs come thick and fast to begin with, and the only knock on the film is that we don’t get to spend more time with this star-studded ensemble. Instead we see the film mostly as it relates to Harlan’s kind-hearted nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who seems closer to Harlan than any of his blood relatives. The daughter of an illegal immigrant, Marta’s innocence offers a stark contrast to the self-interests of Harlan’s extended family.
The focus on Marta serves as a nod to the way in which American society and the “American Dream” can be viewed by those on the outside. While most of Harlan’s family see themselves as “self-made”, their privilege is clear as day. Just how much Rian Johnson manages to pack into the 2h 10m run time is incredibly impressive. But what’s even more impressive is just how fresh and fun it feels.
Although there’s no hugely imaginative, Jonathan Creek-style reveal, the plot keeps you invested right up until the very last moments, and, like the very best mysteries, there’s plenty to guess and gather along the way. Perfect for all the family, in the cinema, with the popcorn
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