Murder mysteries permeate modern culture — characters like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and even Batman are all world class detectives who provide thrilling stories of deception, mystery and intrigue. But what happens when the author of such murder mysteries is found dead in his private estate under questionable circumstances?
Following the death of patriarch and notable mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a true-to-form traditional detective dripping with Southern charm, Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), begins an investigation amid the family squabble over who gets the millionaire's estate.
Like all good mysteries, “Knives Out” is best experienced without spoilers. The fun comes with discovering the clues along with the detective and his company, attempting to beat the characters to the reveal.
The heart of the characters' conflict comes from Thrombey’s privileged and entitled extended family. Featuring a star-studded cast, the film comes alive in heated debates and moments of sabotage as each member vies for the inheritance from their recently deceased family member.
Notable family members are the intimidating publisher and son, Walt (Michael Shannon), the ditzy socialite, Joni (Toni Collette), the vengeful daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the absent but devilish grandson, aptly named Ransom (Chris Evans).
At the center of the conflict is the surprising protagonist, the — until recently — caretaker for Harlan, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). Marta finds herself questioning where her loyalties lie and who to trust in the week following the discovery of Harlan’s body. She also finds herself in the unusual position of being Detective Blanc’s No. 1 trusted friend throughout his investigation.
As is the problem with other ensemble casts, the main complaint with “Knives Out” is the relative lack of development of certain characters. It's hard to imagine more than a few characters being key suspects because the plot doesn't spend much time on them.
Johnson’s foremost talent is world-building — films such as “Brick” and “Looper” illustrate his prowess in creating fully realized fictional worlds. It is a shame that the characters in “Knives Out” have the capacity to be as fully fleshed out as the world surrounding them, but simply aren't due to time constraints.
The film is not exactly a straight up-and-down murder mystery. As it is set in current day, social issues underscore the murderous tension: heated political discussions occur at parties — and funerals — the disparity of wealth among the family and the question of morality in the face of total ruin all complement what might otherwise be passed off as a generic game of “Clue.”
Along with modern social issues, the dialogue is also laced with references to popular culture — one character even sings a line from “Hamilton” in his interrogation scene — in such a way that it pays homage to the content it is referencing, while simultaneously building the family into a believable modern family rather than caricatures from fiction.
Similarly, the Thrombey estate is chock full of symbols and references to the genre it occupies: secret windows, squeaky stairs and lots and lots of parlors and fireplaces.
Johnson’s film is a love letter to the works of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle while also being wholly his own work. It is a refreshing original story from a different genre among a list of remakes and sequels earlier in 2019.
Stylistically, the film is well done. Close-up shots build tension while wide shots establish and set the scene. Dynamic low-point lighting gives a tongue-in-cheek dramatic feel to what is otherwise a quite humorous film.
It is rare that a new story such as “Knives Out,” comes out entirely on its own, not based on a book or series or other film, to give the audience a chance to be a detective of old in the modern world.
The film releases on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, with a PG-13 rating. It will serve as a perfect reminder to audiences that, no matter how bad their family gatherings are, it could always be worse.