Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Knives Out is a comedic mystery drama film released in 2019 and was written, directed and co-produced by Rian Johnson. It is both a parody and tribute to the cinematic adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and concerns an eccentric investigator looking into the apparent suicide of the patriarch of a dysfunctional family. The film's ensemble cast include Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Christopher Plummer. Director Johnson has cited several classic mystery films like Murder On The Orient Express and Sleuth as inspiration for this film, originally conceived as Johnson finished work on Looper. The film received near-universal critical acclaim with its cast, directing and screenplay winning plaudits and multiple award nominations. The film also struck a chord with audiences with global takings in excess of $311 million and Rian Johnson has already started work on producing a sequel, which was green-lit in February 2020.
What's it about?
Successful mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey is celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday at his isolated country mansion in rural Massachusetts with his extended family. Unfortunately, Harlan is found dead in his study the next morning by his housekeeper Fran - his throat slit. Although the police rule Harlan's death as a suicide, the family are kept on location by officers Detective Lieutenant Elliott and Trooper Wagner who are assisting the renowned private eye Benoit Blanc. Blanc has been hired anonymously to investigate the death, a case which he himself describes as a doughnut with a hole in the middle.
It soon emerges that things are not well beneath the respectable veneer the family presents to the world. Blanc discovers that Harlan felt estranged from his family - on the day of the party, he threatened his son-in-law Richard over an affair Richard was having, cut off his daughter-in-law Joni for stealing from him, fired his son Walt from running his publishing company and had an explosive argument with his grandson Ransom. But Blanc is unaware that Harlan's live-in nurse Marta also has some secrets... in fact, it's almost impossible to rule out anyone.
What's to like?
Having grown up watching seemingly endless adaptations of Agatha Christie novels on TV, Knives Out feels like very familiar territory indeed. The country manor house, the autumnal leaves littering the grounds, the assorted gathering of obvious suspects, a quirky hero with a French name - every cliché you can think of is here and, frankly, treasured. The film makes no excuse for imitating the style of these stagey dramas but they feel both traditional and refreshed in this movie, as though we haven't seen a movie like this for years. At the same time, the film also isn't afraid to poke fun at the format with some deliciously wicked one-liners and wonderfully exaggerated characters. You get a sense that the cast are having some real fun in their roles, none more so than the amazing Craig who utilises a brilliantly over-the-top Southern accent as Blanc. It may take some getting used to but his is the stand-out performance in the film, giving him a new character to inhabit when he walks away from playing James Bond in the forthcoming No Time To Die.
Like all mysteries of this type, the story is wonderfully complex and liable to lead to numerous suspects in your mind before the culprit is eventually unveiled. What makes the film feel a cut above many others is the unique dynamic at the heart of the film. Alongside Craig's debonair detective, Ana de Armas' guilt-plagued nurse Marta knows the truth and works hard to disguise her involvement in the case. In fact, she is so likeable in the role that you genuinely fear for her chances as Blanc begins to unravel the case. As hard as the film works to maintain the traditional formula of whodunnits, it also isn't afraid to subvert the format with unlikely car chases and some Hitchcockian twists to keep viewers on their toes. It's a very enjoyable film to watch, it feels like a warming whisky you can enjoy in your favourite comfy chair on a Sunday evening.
- Benoit Blanc is first introduced to audiences as he is sat behind Elliott and Wagner, hitting a high piano note at seemingly random intervals during questioning. It's actually a signal from Blanc for Elliott to ask a specific question: "what time did you arrive at the house?"
- Craig based his accent on that of historian and writer Shelby Foote with touches of Foghorn Leghorn and Harlan Pepper, a character in the film Best In Show played by Christopher Guest - who is Jamie Lee Curtis' husband.
- Jacob Thrombey, the snobby prep-school grandson played by Jaeden Martell, was apparently influenced by people and trolls online who voiced their criticism of Rian Johnson after the release of Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi.
- All four firefighters seen in the film are either former or presently serving members of the Marlborough, Massachusetts fire department - Paul Zompetti, Ron Ayotte, Brian Leonard and Joseph Bisazza all appear as themselves with their names visible on their jackets.
What's not to like?
My only real issues with the film aren't serious but they did spring to mind after the film had finished. The last 30 minutes or so feel very different to what went before it with a dark, suspenseful sequence and then a deliberately clunky car chase that I didn't feel matched the tone of the film thus far. The other thing that bugged me was the film's denouement which explained the film's twisting narrative but left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. Not because it shattered my own theories on the culprit (I'm genuinely hopeless at murder mystery things) but because it felt a touch underwhelming. It felt, and this will sound harsh, as though Rian Johnson wrote the film's elaborate set-up and then had to figure out who the killer would be afterwards. I don't blame him for this though, I've frequently written myself into a corner I can't get out of.
In general though, this is a thoroughly entertaining picture. I am hoping that once this pandemic is over and films start getting made again that the proposed sequel revisits the character of Benoit Blanc, a fascinating creation and wonderfully played by Craig who seems delighted to be playing someone other than a British super-spy or action hero. I would have liked to seen more of some of the cast - Curtis in particular seems underutilised, as does Langford's intriguing Meg - although I understand how difficult it can be to get an ensemble cast equally allocated screen time. I also would have liked the film to explore more of its political statements. The dysfunctional Thrombey family's inherent racism and attitude towards Marta feels like it's poking fun at the Republican elite exemplified in the White House (well, until January anyway) but it never follows up on the few gentle jabs the film throws.
Should I watch it?
Full of old-school charm, witty performances and a mystery guaranteed to keep most amateur sleuths guessing, Knives Out is a wonderful throwback to those much-loved murder mysteries of yore. It's genuinely fun to watch with hundreds of references to earlier such projects and even if you aren't used to traditional murder mysteries, the film breathes new life into a long-stagnant subgenre. It also illustrates that Johnson is a much better filmmaker than The Last Jedi would suggest, reminding us of his earlier work and perhaps suggesting that a film's quality is not necessarily related to its budget.
Great For: Agatha Christie fans, amateur detectives, Daniel Craig's post-007 career, migrant families
Not So Great For: dysfunctional families, trust fund yuppies, the Trumps
What else should I watch?
Murder mysteries are usually found on TV rather than the time-constrained big screen, from shows like Murder She Wrote to Columbo. But cinema isn't afraid of putting on a good show - Peter Ustinov portrayed Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in three films from Death On The Nile, Evil Under The Sun and Appointment With Death although he inherited the role from Albert Finney, after he was unable to reprise the role when he played Poirot in the 1974 version of Murder On The Orient Express. Currently, it appears Kenneth Branagh has adopted the role as his own following his 2017 version of Murder On The Orient Express. Away from Christie's books, other films you might want to look at include the madcap experiment that was Clue or the classy Gosford Park with yet another all-star ensemble.
Rian Johnson's relatively short film career launched back in 2005 with the indie smash Brick, a film-noir-style mystery set in a Californian high school starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Earning acclaim at numerous festivals, the film made life hard for Johnson's follow-up The Brothers Bloom which underwhelmed critics and never really found an audience. But it was Looper that brought Johnson to the attention of Disney to direct the eighth Star Wars movie - with dramatic results. Johnson introduced a number of elements in the screenplay that angered many long-time fans although the film wasn't quite the bust many had claimed. It's certainly the most divisive entry in the series which has grown increasingly prevalent since it was sold to the House Of Mouse.
Ana de Armas
Hugh Ransom Drysdale
Jamie Lee Curtis
Det. Lt. Elliott
Release Date (UK)
27th November, 2019
Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Screenplay
© 2020 Benjamin Cox