Who really killed Harlan? Why would someone kill an old man on his birthday? Who wants his money? I suspect foul play…
Knives Out is an updated whodunit, yet carries all the tropes of classic caper tales. This film captures the essence of the mystery genre while adding in comedy. The story centers on the death of family patriarch Harlan Thrombey, a renowned mystery novelist. His family and nurse are suspected to be more involved with his death than they admit. The story unearths all the motives behind each character as they retell their story of his birthday party. Lead police detective, Lieutenant Elliott, with support from Trooper Wagner (a.k.a Harlan Thrombey fanboy) compare notes with the privately hired, Detective Benoit Blanc to solve this puzzle. By the end, the question is was it suicide or was it murder? The questions lead the investigators on a merry chase to find the answer. The story as a whole does feel like a novel of Thrombey’s own design.
Knives Out is very fun to watch. Modernizing the whodunit genre allows room to poke fun at those tropes while using them. Of course, the story takes place at a very eccentrically decorated manor of an old man, yet at one point Lieutenant Elliot calls his house a real-life Clue board. The setting is as classic as it gets. The house feels warm, but the array of oddities make it feel less than welcoming. Harlan’s own books inspired much of the decor and design of the house making it an extra character in the film. If only these walls could talk. In this house, it almost feels like they could.
The Suspect List
The casting in Knives Out is just about as perfect as it gets. The cast is an ensemble of iconic and fresh-faced character actors delivering sharp performances. This film is the first outing for Chris Evans since ending his time as Captain America. His character could not be farther from the noble Avengers leader. Rather, Evans brings out a spoiled kid who grew up with too much money and not enough guidance. Jamie Lee Curtis works as the matriarch of the family as the oldest daughter of the Thrombey family. Curtis knows her strengths and plays into her background in horror to create a cold character who continuously calculates her every move. Ana De Armas takes the lead for the first time and lands as the nurse who gets caught up in the investigation and family drama.
The film uses very few locations and allows the colorful cast of characters to move the story forward with little help from obvious story tent poles. As layers upon layers of clues pile up, the Thrombeys go on defense to protect themselves, all the while leaving evidence behind. Detective Blanc played brilliantly by Daniel Craig, offers the idea that he doesn’t really investigate, he allows the truth to emerge as it always seems to find him. The magic of the piece is that the whodunit feels finished by the end of the first act leaving the audience to wonder, “what are we missing?” One of the key reasons for that is Detective Blanc doesn’t know who hired him.
One last casting note, shout-out to Frank Oz! His part is small and he is great, as always. Yet he is an easter egg for the Star Wars fans out there, because why not!?
The Real Story
This story is a social commentary. As all good genre-focused pieces are, this one works to comment on immigration and the liberal versus conservative thinking in 2019. Toni Collette’s character, Joni, offers the most hippie of liberal perspectives, while Michael Shannon’s Walt guides the deep conservative arguments. Walt’s son is even accused of being part of the alt-right. These conversations not only better explore the characters, but offers a connection for the story in its modern context. Without this subplot, the story would feel generic. Rian Johnson’s direction keeps the story self-contained, so reaching in to the larger world allows the setting to not feel so isolating to the audience. Yet, because of this containment, the story’s design leaves the characters feeling very trapped.
Knives Out is really fun. Honestly, this is one of the most satisfying films in a long time. In the end, you feel as though every rock is turned over and every speck of dirt analyzed. Yet, it still leaves a few pieces of information unanswered which makes for a fun ride home. There isn’t room for a sequel, but here’s hoping Rian Johnson can craft another caper in the future.