Knives Out – A clever murder mystery
If you are an Agatha Christie fan, chances of you not stumbling across the 2019 film Knives Out are slim. Not because the movie is by any means based on a Christie masterpiece, but because its narrative is so vividly reminiscent of her creations. The resemblance works in the film’s favor, because – spoiler alert – it is brilliant.
A thin line between mystery-comedy and comedy-mystery
The internet is thoroughly confused about how to categorize the movie: is it a mystery thriller drama, is it a comedy, is it something outlandish? In reality, it is one of those movies, like The Martian, which can conveniently be classified under both ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’, depending on which way the wind is blowing that awards season. Except, the dilemma will actually be justified for Knives Out. There is a thin line between mystery-comedy and comedy-mystery, and I believe Knives Out manages to successfully blur that line, though the interspersion of genres seems deliberate at times.
What starts out as a largely harmless Agatha Christie story, save for a gruesome suicide (or is it murder?), crescendos into an episode of How to Get Away with Murder? towards the penultimate act of the movie and yet ends with an Enid Blyton-esque feelgood-ness (I apologize for adding new words to the Oxford dictionary, but there is really no other way to put it). I am saying this as a huge Christie, Blyton and Viola Davis fan – so believe me when I say that none of this is meant to be an insult.
Knives Out is best experienced without too much prior knowledge
– Slight spoiler warning ahead.
In the course of the movie, we are introduced to Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer), who is the rich owner of a publishing house and a quite famous mystery writer himself. The premise is that on the night of Harlan’s 85th birthday, as he and his nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) ritualistically (and chaotically) play their game of ‘Go’, Harlan’s regular medication gets mixed up with a bottle of morphine. In the confusion, the sweet and unknowing Marta accidentally overdoses Harlan with morphine and the antidote is nowhere to be found. To save Marta from the blame of his death, Harlan advises her to run away and slits his throat – with one of the many knives that are easily accessible in his house – to make it look like suicide. Except, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a character not unlike Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (except with a thick Southern accent; bravo, Daniel!), happens to disagree with the whole suicide theory, which provides all the mystery fodder. Matters go out of hand when another murder – that of the house help Fran – transpires.
A family filled with secrets
The film’s casting is quite interesting. Ana de Armas plays the cute, kind and considerate nurse Marta Cabrera, a character diagonally opposite to her psychopathic Knock Knock (2015) character. Marta can seemingly do nothing wrong, until perhaps the fateful night of her benefactor’s 85th birthday. What is important to know here is that Marta cannot lie without throwing up, which is a terrific plot device to verify the truth in whatever she says.
Scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis portrays Harlan’s daughter, whose husband Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on her – something that Harlan discovers and threatens to expose. Toni Collette plays Harlan’s deceased eldest son’s wife, who is scamming him by collecting her daughter’s education fee twice – another fact that Harlan unearths. Adding to Harlan’s miseries, his youngest son Walt, played by the acclaimed but massively underused Michael Shannon, wants to take over his publishing company.
Chris Evans lights up the screen as Ransom, Harlan’s grandson, who at some point worked as the crime writer’s research assistant. So, spoiler alert, Ransom conveniently knows all about committing murders and destroying evidence. Also gracing the screen are actors from popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why (Katherine Langford) and the 2017 phenomenon It: Chapter 1 (Jaeden Martell), although they both seem terribly out of place and, dare I say, unnecessary.
A murder mystery that makes the audience feel stupid
Like any whodunnit, the sheer number of characters in the movie make up for a variety of suspects. Unfortunately, that also means that they do not get enough screen time to do justice to their acting talent, or even to their characters. Nevertheless, I really appreciate movies that do not make their audience feel stupid. Knives Out does not disappoint in that regard. For instance, the audience expects everyone being interviewed by Craig and his aides to lie. Screenplay writer and director Rian Johnson, of Star Wars: The Last Jedi fame, thankfully knows this. He does nothing to haul his audience into false pretenses. On the contrary, as each of the interviewees is questioned in the majestic mansion where Harlan resides, their crystal clear lies are accompanied by the corresponding truths in the screenplay. Personally, this tactic works better for me than most, almost sloppy writing that is seen in detective genre cinema.
The cinematography is praiseworthy. Quick camera movements undeniably remind the viewer of Quentin Tarantino’s cinema, such as Django Unchained (2012) and Pulp Fiction (1994) – and that is a compliment. Among all the actors, Craig and de Armas are the show-stealers here, charming their way through the runtime of the film. Evans is the cherry on top of the cake. In fact, I must say that Evans gets the gold in comedy here, especially in the scene in which Ransom is verbally taking out his frustration on all his family members. I wouldn’t lie, I decided to watch Knives Out only after having seen that scene in the previews.
There is not an ounce of doubt that the rest of the Knives Out cast is equally as stellar. If only they got better, meatier parts to play in the film, the result would have been different. But, let us not get greedy here. Despite its deficiencies, Knives Out is still a great feature. Rumors are rife that there is going to be a sequel based on Craig’s character solving another criminal case. In all sincerity, my only suggestion to Johnson for this sequel would be to choose only one of either mystery-comedy or comedy-mystery, whichever has a more dominant scope in his plotline. This clarity would help the audience connect better with the material.
Knives out is a twisty, witty, suspenseful murder mystery movie that has you on the edge of the seat enjoying every minute of the story as it unfolds.
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