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Clue d'oh!
What a refreshing change to go to the cinema and watch a film with (seemingly) no computer generated imagery and a knockout cast bringing a hugely satisfying ‘whodunit’* to life. Camus is royally entertained by Rian Johnson’s KNIVES OUT
 
  “It was the fact that whodunits are uniquely suited, for different reasons, to talking about class. Because you're inevitably looking at a cross-section of society with your suspects, and there's just a built-in power dynamic between whoever is killed and all the people who had motivations for wanting them killed. So I applied that idea to America in 2019.”
  Director Rian Johnson, asked how the project became personal**

 

 

Rian Johnson is clearly out to have as much fun a director can have in today’s mainstream climate. His wildly eclectic oeuvre points to a man savouring every item on the genre menu. Coming off The Last Jedi with which he managed to piss off a small but vocal part of science-fiction fandom (for a few good reasons I have to say) to then land in a Massachusetts drawing room with a faultless cast and not a laser blaster in sight is quite the step down. On second thoughts, I can now see it as a step up. With such a cast, I imagine the shoot was just a joy from start to finish. It also must be something of a relief to tear yourself away from green screens and just immerse yourself in performance, revelation and nuance. Johnson’s interest in class in American culture seeps out at a steady pace with quietly but satisfyingly revealing pieces of dialogue and gestures. There’s a lot to take in but the detail will be worth poring over in a second and third viewing. Did I see Christopher Plummer’s portrait wink at a character at the very end? Johnson as a writer proves his salt with a whole slew of set ups and some glorious pay offs. I don’t know for certain but I imagine this movie was plotted on a giant piece of paper to make sure of connections and the timing of revealed events. It’s how John Cleese and Connie Booth wrote their Fawlty Towers episodes and I’ve always fancied a crack at such an exercise. So what's the story?

Assuming from all the smart phones, it’s present day though it feels it could be set in the 40s for total Agatha Christiesque immersion. A successful mystery author, Harlan Thrombey invites all of his family to his 85th birthday party. The next morning he is discovered with his throat cut. The family is assembled (perhaps in the drawing room, who knows?) and individually questioned. Flashbacks reveal the apparent truth of each family member’s story leaving them to lie or obfuscate while being asked questions in the official interview. Two police detectives are flanking a man in the background who plays a high piano note at certain moments (I’ll have to revisit the timing to make sure I ‘get’ why he does this). This is famous private eye Benoit Blanc who has been assigned to the case by an unknown agent even though to all it seems like a messy but obvious suicide. One of the family calls him ‘CSI KFC.’ His Kentucky accent is, one assumes, a trademark. Of course, as per most drawing room whodunits, everyone seems to have a motive for bumping their father/father-in-law off. The film settles on one character through whom the mystery slowly but quite deliciously unfolds.

Knives Out

The cast is note perfect. Writer Harlan Thrombey is played by the ever-dependable Christopher Plummer. He has reached the age where he now knows all of his family’s foibles and secrets and decides on his birthday to inform every one of them how things are going to go from now on. Essentially he turns the money tap off to some and suggests honesty to others. One by one the family members receive news none of them want to hear and we are left to imagine which one (or ones) might go on and do the deed. Most of the cast here play against type. The southern drawl (and doughnut metaphors) of Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is startling at first but you soon get used to the accent (and the doughnuts). He’s not the master sleuth most of the time, which makes a nice change. He’s even a bit of a bumbler until all stops are pulled for the big reveal. It’s clear that Craig is having a ball playing him. I suppose it pays to remember that actors first signed up to play multiple roles not to be stuck in one character’s shoes even if they are 007’s. Craig freely admits that his next Bond co-star is the beating heart and lead of Knives Out and here we sail into deep, fan-boy waters. She was seen in the trailer for Yesterday but cut out of the film (ostensibly for being too gorgeous, so I can’t wait to see the deleted scene. Aha. It’s already on You Tube. Excuse me for a moment… Wow. That smile, those eyes…) It is, of course, the glowing Ana de Armas. Her break out role as the perfect partner (alas only made of light) was as Joi in Blade Runner 2047. Here she plays Marta Carbrera, the lowest on the family rungs, the hired nurse and companion to Plummer’s ageing patriarch. Each of the family, in their eyes quite rightly, treats her like dirt. None of them seems to know which South American country she hails from (four are mentioned) and she never corrects them. Her principal relationship is with Harlan and if you are close to the king, you inherit a subtle kind of power. No one can claim to pre-choose their DNA. To be seen as handsome or beautiful is at the mercy of a DNA base pair dice roll and the whims of the society in which you live. Being attractive is, ahem, attractive to people which is why film and TV leads are generally good looking. D’uh, right? Ana de Armas, from my point of view, is off the scale. She knocked me out in Blade Runner 2047 and here as a more down to earth carer, she is believable, humble, sweet and always tries to do the right thing. It’s odd to see such a DNA blessed performer treated so badly within the strict confines of the plot. And she is up against bastards of the highest order.

Don Johnson as Richard, Thrombey’s son-in-law, is having an affair his wife Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) knows nothing about. He is prompted to come clean. His subsequent litany of lies rolled out for the detectives makes me think that Johnson must have been directed to be the worst liar on the planet. His wife believes herself to be a self-made success in real estate while conveniently side lining the fact that she had a million dollars from her father to get her started. Bereaved daughter-in-law Joni, a light and deliberately two-dimensional Toni Collette, is a lifestyle guru (I’ve always been unsure of such self-styled people) who has been double dipping from her father-in-law and is now denied further financial help. Son Walter is in charge of his father’s publishing company and to soften Michael Shannon’s more intense features, his face is treated to some idiosyncratic facial hair. When desperate, even with a walking stick, he can do menacing in his sleep. Richard and Linda’s playboy son is played by a man who shows obvious relief at finally being divested of his shield. Here is Chris Evans playing a douchebag and like Craig, he is relishing every scene. The sense of moneyed entitlement comes off him like a stench despite the physical perfection that used to be Captain America. Harlan’s lawyer makes a brief appearance reading out the writer’s will and while watching, I had a glimmer of recognition but just couldn’t put my finger on where I knew him from… I did a bit of a jaw drop finding out the same actor had played an insensitive ass in An American Werewolf in London and had performed an startling adlibbed existential crisis scene in his guise of Fozzie Bear up a tree with Kermit the frog as a test for The Muppet Movie. Yup, it was Yoda himself, Frank Oz. Apologies Frank.

As I mentioned there are a number of quietly thrown away signposts and more than a few red herrings for us to get distracted by but these are set up and paid off in such satisfying ways, a lot of them comedic. One character has dislodged a piece of wooden trellis in scaling the house. As this character talks to a distracted detective Blanc, one of two German Shepherds deposits the incriminating piece of wood at his/her feet. It’s quickly, literally thrown away. Later in the film the dog does the same service but this time to Blanc himself. Examples of derisory treatment of Marta abound, cups lifted with the expectation of her having to clear up after everyone else, which of course she does with no complaint. Johnson has maintained the feel of the old detective drawing room mystery hiring cousin Nathan Johnson, a long time collaborator to furnish a classical score that does the job of mood setting very well, all punchy strings and mystery. There is a wonderful car chase, so named because of its incongruity (three squad cars chasing an electric vehicle). In fact one of the cops calls it “the dumbest car chase of all time!” He may not be wrong. I’m quite keen to see it for a second time to take more in. Knives Out is dense in the packed sense rather than the senseless sense. There is a lot going on. And it’s a real treat to take it all in.

 


* The son of a director I worked with saw ‘whodunit’ in a newspaper and asked his father “Dad, what’s a whod unit?”

** https://www.gq.com/story/rian-johnson-knives-out-interview-2019

Knives Out poster
Knives Out

USA 2019
130 mins
directed by
Rian Johnson
produced by
Ram Bergman
Rian Johnson
written by
Rian Johnson
cinematography
Steve Yedlin
editing
Bob Ducsay
music
Nathan Johnson
production design
David Crank
starring
Daniel Craig
Chris Evans
Ana de Armas
Jamie Lee Curtis
Michael Shannon
Don Johnson
Toni Collette
LaKeith Stanfield
Christopher Plummer
Katherine Langford
Jaeden Martell
Riki Lindhome
Edi Patterson
Frank Oz
K Callan
Noah Segan
M. Emmet Walsh

UK distributor
Lionsgate UK Ltd
UK release date
27 November 2019
review posted
29 November 2019

See all of Camus' reviews