Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Knives Out” (2019)

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery “whodunnit” sees popular private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) investigate the mysterious death of wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) at his country house, at which all of his opportunistic and scheming relatives have all gathered so that they can hear the reading of his will. Assisted by Thrombey’s healthcare worker Marta (Ana de Armas), who cannot tell a lie without vomiting, as well as the police, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the famed author’s death are closely investigated and everyone is indeed a suspect as it appears as though everybody has something to hide.

The trailer for Knives Out promises a “whodunnit like no-one has ever dunnit”, and, unless I’m reading too much into that tagline, this implies that the film will be a murder mystery like no other, one that will shake up the genre, turn it on its head and give us something that we’ve never seen before, but although Rian Johnson has indeed crafted an intelligent, well designed and ultimately satisfying murder mystery yarn, I have to say straight away that there’s not really anything here that you couldn’t get in any other solid murder mystery story (besides maybe some colourful language and a certain type of humour) and those who are well versed in the genre may be able to figure certain things out quite early on and guess where it’s all eventually heading, perhaps even getting a good idea of who, indeed, “dunnit”. Myself, I’m no stranger to detective fiction and was able to stay a tiny bit ahead of the game at certain points, suspecting who the “baddie” really was, though this was somewhat spoiled by a piece of information inadvertently given by the trailer.

But that minor niggle aside, it’s certainly nice to see a modern murder mystery film that will cater to today’s audiences, not continuing to delve into old costume drama stories set in years gone by, and Rian Johnson needs to be applauded for crafting a coherent, twisty-turny thriller that contains no major plot holes and manages to engage and interest throughout – stories of this nature are surely difficult to get right and it’s commendable that he’s able to juggle numerous characters and plot twists while also directing very well and making it look as stylish as possible. It’s a solid story that includes many of the expected genre tropes but at the same time, there’s plenty of modern touches to be found (including a knowing dig at online trolls), the dialogue is competently written and natural, and the plot manages to be perfectly accessible throughout, masterfully easing us into the story at the beginning and never letting events get too complex or unnecessarily complicated as the film moves on. It also manages to create an air of doubt and mystery as it tells certain events from different perspectives, leaving us to question just who is telling the truth and establishing the fact that there are several “unreliable narrators”.

Along with the good writing, Johnson also succeeds in his directing duties as it’s very well structured and has a good pace and Knives Out definitely looks the part – giving us the type of country house location that’s ideal for a film in this genre – and in addition to successfully letting us get to know all the ins and outs of its central location, making it feel lived-in and familiar, Johnson and his team also play around with Dutch angles as well as many close-ups, low angles, slo-mo shots and several other well thought out camera moves to create an ideally dramatic and engrossing atmosphere.

Utilising an all-star cast, the characters of Knives Out are undeniably colourful and go a long way in making the film such a fun experience. At the head of the pack, Daniel Craig is excellent as the Southern fried detective, gleefully chewing the scenery and having fun with a kind of role that we haven’t really seen from him before and supporting him, Ana de Armas takes on the meaty role of the sympathetic and kind, but also secretive and cunning, Marta, Christopher Plummer is as good and as resplendent he’s always been as the family patriarch, and Chris Evans takes on a very different kind of role as the entitled, rude, smarmy, swaggering Ransom, playing the part with great humour and a clear willingness to let himself go and have a laugh. In the rest of the impressive cast, we have Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford and Jaeden Lieberher Martell and they all (excluding Stanfield and Langford, who are more sympathetic) convince as the opportunistic, unforgiving, privileged and scheming family members, although they all eventually kind of blend together as their characters don’t develop much and after a while, it gets harder to differentiate between them, seeing as how they have similar motives and characteristics – with the possible exception of Toni Collette, whose character is noticeably more empty headed and kooky. And it’s a shame that Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell don’t have more to do – we don’t hear much from them for a lot of the film and I was fully expecting them to have important parts to play by the end, but their parts aren’t vital and they are overshadowed by the other big names in the cast.

A stylish, entertaining and modern “whodunnit” with a coherent and intelligent script, accomplished direction, colourful characters, and a fun cast.

★ ★ ★ ★