KNIVES OUT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Rian Johnson

Stars: Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz, K Callan, Edi Patterson, Noah Seagn, M Emmett Walsh.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell, and Katherine Langford in Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out, which comes from director Rian Johnson (Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, etc), is a modern-day twist on the whodunnit genre. It is perfect entertainment for fans of the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Hitchcock, with an eccentric but brilliant detective, a suspicious death and a colourful cast of suspects. Knives Out is a compelling and playfully twisting murder mystery that pays homage to Christie with plenty of surprises and a cast of A-listers including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Chris Evans and even James Bond himself Daniel Craig, cast largely against type.

It all begins when best-selling crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study with his throat cut following a family gathering to celebrate his 85th birthday. The initial verdict is suicide, according to local detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield). A week later the dysfunctional family gather for a memorial and also to hear the reading of the old man’s will. Present now is Benoit Blanc (Craig), a debonair, soft spoken and gentlemanly private detective with a strong Southern drawl. But even Blanc is not sure who has hired him or why.

Blanc begins to question the individual family members, all of whom are a greedy, parasitic and unlikeable bunch and all have a potential motive to kill the old man. Was it Linda (Curtis), Thrombey’s haughty, tough and successful daughter who borrowed money to establish her own real estate business? Or was it her womanising husband Richard (Don Johnson), who exchanged heated words with Harlan when the old man threatened to expose his extramarital affair? Or was it Harlan’s son Walt (Shannon), who ran the company that published his books? Or was it widowed new age daughter-in-law Joni (Collette) who had been embezzling the trust fund established to pay for her daughter’s education? Or was it Ransom (Evans), Linda’s arrogant, dissolute playboy son, a ne’er do well who is widely considered the black sheep of the family, who couldn’t even be bothered to turn up for the old man’s funeral?

And what of Harlan’s devoted, caring and unassuming nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, from Blade Runner 2049, etc), who may have been the last person to see the author alive? What did she see that night? What does she know and what secrets is she hiding? Marta however is physically incapable of lying and proves to be a great ally in helping Blanc sift through a web of lies, deceptions and secrets and motives. She is a sounding board for him to test out his various theories about what really happened on that night.

A number of key events are replayed from different perspectives, adding another intriguing layer to the unfolding drama. The carefully constructed script itself is full of red herrings, and is also laced with some touches of black humour. And while the film incorporates many of the usual tropes of the mystery genre, it also subtly explores themes of class and race in contemporary America through its characters.

Johnson began his career with low budget mysteries like the noir-like Brick before moving on to bigger budget films like the time travel thriller Looper and the Star Wars franchise. He handles this labyrinthine plot with assurance. The ensemble cast deliver nice performances and relish the sarcastic and witty dialogue and bounce off each other delightfully. It seems as though they had a lot of fun working on the picture. Each of the characters is drawn in broad strokes that easily highlight their flaws and idiosyncrasies. Craig, in particular, has something of Columbo’s insouciance and ingratiating nature about him. Curtis brings a steely quality to her performance, while Evans, also cast largely against type, has fun as the obnoxious and smarmy Ransom.

Kudos also to production designer David Crank (There Will Be Blood, etc) who has created Thrombey’s impressive house with its creaky stairs, secret windows and burnished panelled walls.

Not since The Usual Suspects has there been such a clever, whip smart and sinuously plotted mystery thriller that keeps audiences off balance and guessing until the final twist.

★★★★

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