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Knives Out
Southern accents and dead writers! My my, what do we have here? Perhaps we need clydefro to investigate the 4K UltraHD release of Rian Johnson's KNIVES OUT in hopes of getting to the bottom of this murder mystery.
 

Of the many reasons to enjoy and endorse Knives Out, near the top is the opportunity it affords Daniel Craig to chew scenery with utter confidence while trying on a Foghorn Leghorn accent. We saw Craig have fun with a character part recently in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky, but this is a better, more fully realized role. Here he plays Benoit Blanc, a famous detective – profiled by The New Yorker - brought in after the sudden death of the wealthy and successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer). Craig is the big movie star among a delicious ensemble. The balance could easily have fallen by the wayside. That Craig performs with such gusto is a testament both to writer/director Rian Johnson's script and the apparent trust afforded to let the actor do something not just different but successfully straddling the line between commitment and parody while never losing touch with the murder mystery dynamic.

Rian Johnson's follow-up to The Last Jedi is a decided change of pace – a whodunnit heavily populated with familiar faces and clever twists and turns. Consistent with Johnson's filmography thus far, it's a genre film that aims to entertain. Still, there's an increased emphasis on craft and purpose achieved here to a greater degree than in his earlier, pre-Star Wars movies. Whereas films like BrickThe Brothers Bloom and Looper all had much to offer, I found each one unconvincing as pure genre exercises. Each seemingly attempted to subvert basic genre elements without fully committing, in the process alienating the viewer (this one, at least). Brick, for example, lacks the pathos in its protagonist that should ideally define any central figure of film noir. While Knives Out could be said to play a bit fast and loose with its whodunnit roots, that's certainly a much less defined set of standards considering the paucity of entries (particularly in recent memory). Plus Johnson has Craig to guide and save it all if things begin to lag (which they rarely do).

Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey

The Thrombey death opens the door to his family of vultures and bloodsuckers to be seen as possible suspects as well as maneuver for their piece of the old man's fortune. The initial half hour or so of the picture has a pair of local cops (the peerless Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) question the family alongside Craig's Blanc. Each family member (and cast member) is well-defined and given their own possible motive in doing away with their patriarch. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) seem to be possibly the most self-sufficient with their real estate business but cracks may exist in their marriage. Son Walt (Michael Shannon) manages the publishing aspect but for how long? Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) has been leeching her daughter's tuition from Harlan but what if she were to be suddenly cut off? Similarly, grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) has never done anything for himself so what would he do if the well dried up unexpectedly? Then there's Harlan's selfless nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), perhaps his closest confidante and the one with the least reason to want him dead. But what if she has a secret she's hiding?

The film deftly goes from initially presenting the death, introducing possible suspects and seemingly soon after showing exactly how Harlan died without really sacrificing the needed suspense or intrigue that comes along with a yarn of this sort. Wrinkles, that's how. So even as we find out (apparently) what happened we're still left with a less than clear picture as to the particulars of everything that occurred. These loose ends or wrinkles propel the second half of Knives Out and further its rewatchabilty quotient past the simple questions of who did it and how. Identifying it too strictly as a whodunnit brings concerns about how the film plays beyond those criminal particulars and that's not quite fair in this instance. For one thing, the specifics of Harlan's death are less brilliant or memorable than the denouements from many of the famous Agatha Christie stories Johnson is aping. Happily, there's a lot to appreciate elsewhere.

From the very start there's joy to be found in the details. We see a beautiful New England mansion in late autumn. Two rambunctious canines race across the screen. The look of the film immediately has a warm, lived-in texture to it. The Thrombey home is outfitted with sometimes bizarre details like a large round fixture filled with knives – a striking set piece on its own – and a stuffed monkey being chased by a stuffed leopard upstairs in Harlan's room. A large painting of Harlan dominates one room. The library looks like somewhere you'd be happy to spend an afternoon. The large house is cozy and familiar. If we're going to dedicate over two hours more or less confined to a single residence this looks to be among the best case scenarios.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda as the family listens

One point perhaps worth making as a possibly subjective take is the inclination to spend time with that which we like and slide into with ease rather than something more challenging and abrasive. This could be argued to be a lazy form of critical thinking and a roadblock towards any kind of growth as a viewer. Fair enough. Nonetheless it seems that, especially as we age, we often tend to both identify a more narrow type of desired entertainment and, as a consequence, realize the biggest obstacle of all is a shared lack of time and mental real estate to devote to diversions from our everyday lives. Evidence of this includes popcorn movies and lowest common denominator television programs. The worn-shoes nature of Knives Out lends itself beautifully to so many of the ticked boxes we desire. Word of mouth has clearly been kind to this movie. For what it's worth, my local multiplex is still showing it, three months after the initial release and overlapping with this home media roll out.

Beyond the production design, the film succeeds with its talented cast, led by Craig certainly but centered by Ana de Armas whose character provides a much-needed respite from the privileged nastiness of the Thrombeys. Marta is clearly the heart of the film and she's tasked with having to balance out the extremes from the anxious Thrombey clan. We spend a great deal of screen time with her and she's quite possibly the most crucial member of the cast. If de Armas was less sympathetic the whole would probably fall apart entirely. The acting ensemble is otherwise filled with actors who are typically the best part of any movie they're in so it's a treat to have them all together. Johnson and his cast keep the tone light and aren't afraid to liberally use humor. I recall watching Kenneth Branagh's update on Murder on the Orient Express not terribly long ago but can't remember a single funny moment. By contrast, the nearly over the top doughnut hole bit from Craig here will give me an easy chuckle for some time.

Speaking of other films in a similar vein, this kind of Agatha Christie-style whodunnit that Johnson was aiming for doesn't come around very often nowadays, and that's unfortunate. His commentary track distances Knives Out from the parodic angle films like Murder by Death and Clue have taken. One rather underrated picture for the same shelf, mentioned later in Johnson's track and still seeking a Blu-ray release after earlier being relegated to a DVD-R from Warner Archive, is The Last of Sheila. Written by the actor Anthony Perkins and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (slyly referenced here when Blanc sings one of his songs), that whodunnit is nasty and cruel in the best possible way and is easily worth seeking out if you find this film almost too palatable. Otherwise, Johnson also cites the Peter Ustinov films where he plays Christie's Poirot – Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun – as influences. The original Sleuth, which is pretty much missing in action on home media (owing to rights issues, I believe), is also frequently referenced by the filmmaker. 

sound and vision

Under review here is the US Lionsgate release of Knives Out on 4K UltraHD disc. This edition also contains a Blu-ray and a digital code. Resolution is promised as four times sharper than HD on this format, though it's at least arguable as to exactly how much the average viewer will discern the upgrade. As to be expected with any home viewing experience, the individual setup will dictate quite a bit of the quality available. While I've personally enjoyed my 4K UltraHD viewings, and it's always nice knowing you are seeing the best available option of any given title, as a general rule the bump in quality over Blu-ray doesn't seem as noticeable as the one we typically see from DVD to Blu-ray.

Danirl Craig as Benoit Blanc

That said, Knives Out certainly looks terrific on this disc. When I saw the film in the cinema it had a gorgeous, filmlike texture to it that made me initially think it had actually been shot on film (even though I saw a digital projection). Cinematographer Steve Yedlin actually opted for the Arri Alexa Mini camera – there's a detailed back and forth also involving Rian Johnson on both this choice and deciding on the 1.85:1 aspect ratio in the long making-of documentary on the disc – but the overall look is often rich and evocative. Yedlin has found a way to achieve a digital aesthetic closer to traditional film and the result here is quite successful. The transfer cleanly delivers optimal image quality.

Audio options are plentiful. The default is the English Dolby Atmos track, which positions dialogue and sounds perfectly to my ears. The mix and distribution are excellent. There's also an English Descriptive Audio option and separate French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish as well as English for the hearing impaired.

extra features

The disc packs on the extras, possibly to the point of exhaustion since if you canvas everything (which I understandably did) you'll probably hear many of the same pieces of information two, three or even four times.

Audio commentary by Writer-Director Rian Johnson, Director of Photography Steve Yedlin, and Actor Noah Segan
These longtime pals offer scene-specific insight into the production. The track never drags but, to be honest, it's hardly indispensable and those who watch the lengthy making-of documentary on the disc or listen to Johnson's solo commentary won't hear much new information.

Deleted Scenes with optional audio commentary by Rian Johnson
Two excised details emerge in this pair of cut scenes. In "Bicycling Accident" (2:45) – we hear Walt first describe why he has a walking boot and cane as being due to a vague bicycling accident but things take a turn as Blanc questions his wife, played by Riki Lindhome, on the true cause of the injury. Meanwhile, Blanc also gets more screen time in the "Don't Do Anything Rash" (2:12) scene when a moisturizer he'd purchased from Joni's company Flam ends up giving him a nasty breakout.

Ana de Armas and Marta

"Making a Murder" Multipart Documentary (1:54:07)
This is divided into eight separate pieces or can be watched all together. It is an incredibly detailed – perhaps exhaustively so – look at the production. Beginning with "Premeditation: Inspirations & Origin" (11:55) we hear how Johnson had been toying with the idea of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery for nine years or so and ultimately decided to turn his attention to it following The Last Jedi. "Gathering the Suspects: The Cast" (19:29) obviously discusses the casting and kicks off with Daniel Craig agreeing to star then having some time on his hands when the most recent James Bond film delayed its start. "Dressed to Kill: Costume Design" (8:19) and  "The Scene of the Crime: Production & Design" (13:05) offer technical details from behind the scenes. "Visual Clues: Cinematography" (11:51) lets director of photography Steve Yedlin talk a bit about the back and forth with Johnson over the decision to shoot on digital rather than film. "Putting the Clues Together: Editing "(12:35) delves into the fantastic work done by Bob Ducsay, who keeps everything wound tightly together. "Music to Kill For: Music & Sound" (24:20) travels to Abbey Road studios in London and shows us the recording process for Nathan Johnson's musical score. Finally, "Denouement: Whodunit?" (11:32) ties the lengthy making-of documentary together. While we do see and hear from nearly all of the principals both in front of and behind the camera it's worth lamenting the lack of participation from both Lakeith Stanfield and Christopher Plummer, who are both rock solid in their performances as well as being interesting people to hear from when interviewed. 

In-Theatre Commentary by Rian Johnson
A second commentary track finds the writer/director going solo and saying lots of things you might hear elsewhere among these supplements but it's still probably the more informative of the two commentaries. This was made available on the movie's website to download not long after its initial cinema release in the United States, with the idea being one could download and listen with headphones while in the movie theater (presumably during a rewatch). Certainly it's nice to have on the disc for posterity at the very least. 

Director and Cast Q&A (42:09)
Dated November 14, 2019 in Westwood, California, this question and answer session joins moderator Jenelle Riley of Variety with Rian Johnson, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell. This is actually fun in ways the   documentary wasn't because it lets the actors cut loose and leave soundbite mode behind a bit.

Chris Evans as Ransom

"Rian Johnson: Planning the Perfect Murder" Featurette (6:17)
This is the more generic EPK kind of thing that we often get with studio releases (though often that's all we get in terms of special features so this becomes immediately expendable given the wealth we have here).

Marketing Gallery
The Teaser Trailer (2:12), Theatrical Trailer (2:35), and Final Trailer (1:08) are joined by a black and white promo called "Ode to the Murder Mystery" (1:43) featuring Rian Johnson in a Hitchcock-style piece letting him narrate the coming attraction preview. Also under the umbrella are the "Meet the Thrombeys" Viral Ads, which are short snippets that keep the actors in character for promotional pieces. "Thrombey Real Estate (0:34) has Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda advertising her real estate business. "Blood Like Wine Publishing" (0:56) introduces Michael Shannon's Walt as acting CEO of his father's publishing company. "Flam" (0:34) lets Toni Collette's Joni promote her Goop-like beauty brand.

summary

Knives Out dusts off an old formula and really makes it work. With the aid of a great cast that elevates the specifics of this particular whodunnit, writer/director Rian Johnson has made his most wholly enjoyable movie thus far in his career. I particularly liked the fictional world Johnson and his team were able to meticulously craft – a setting very much worth spending two-plus hours. This 4K UHD/Blu-ray combination package is bursting with extra features and, despite the repetition, grants fans of the film an unusually in-depth level of detail on the production.

 


The disc under review is currently on release in America and is released in the UK on 30 March 2020.

Knives Out UHD cover
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

disc details
region A (Blu-ray)
video
1.85:1
sound
Dolby Atmos 7.1 surround
Dolby Digitall 5.1 surround
languages
English
French
Spanish
English descriptive
subtitles
English
English SDH
French
Spanish
extras
Audio commentary by Writer-Director Rian Johnson, Director of Photography Steve Yedlin, and Actor Noah Segan
Deleted Scenes with optional audio commentary by Rian Johnson
"Making a Murder" Multipart Documentary
In-Theatre Commentary by Rian Johnson
Director and Cast Q&A
"Rian Johnson: Planning the Perfect Murder" Featurette
Marketing Gallery

distributor
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
UK release date
30 March 2020
review posted
1 March 2020

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