Refreshingly self-aware and full of wit, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out opens with the mysterious death of 85-year-old Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), just after having celebrated his milestone birthday. What with Harlan’s slit-throat and a family laden with possible motivations, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play.
Could grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), heard bickering with his grandfather the night before, be responsible? Or perhaps it was his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), who craved his father’s publishing business but was warned they would “talk tomorrow” about his future stake – or rather lack thereof – in the company.
Son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) arouses suspicion when it’s revealed that Harlan had threatened to expose Richard’s infidelity, while Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan’s son, attracts a question mark over her head when we find out that she had been extorting her father-in-law.
Even without their secrets and dubious pretences, it is very difficult to sympathise with any of these characters. Indeed, the only characters who are in anyway likeable are Harlan himself and his kind-hearted and hard-working nurse Marta Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas.
When it comes to light that young Marta has in fact been left with all $60 million of Harlan’s wealth, the Thrombey family well and truly get their knives out; they are furious that their rightful inheritance should be wasted on this Latina girl, especially when she owed them all so much – hadn’t they “always being good to her”?
The casting is fantastic, with Craig’s Detective Blanc earning particular commendation. Clownish yet somehow commanding, with an outrageously southern accent, Blanc is at once brilliant and ridiculous – at one moment he fails to notice when a giveaway piece of evidence is literally dropped at his feet, and at another he demonstrates ingenious perceptibility when he solves the case. On top of the mystery surrounding the suspects, Craig’s character is also doused in intrigue; hired anonymously to unknown ends, his very presence is another mystery to be solved.
Weaving their way throughout Knives Out are amusing little quips that keep this increasingly tense film just light enough. For example, every now and then a member of the Thrombey family will mention Marta’s birthplace – but all of them assign her a different nationality: Paraguay, Ecuador, Uraguay, Brazil … To them, Marta is just some nondescript Latina immigrant, and the Thrombey’s brazen ignorance and reprehensible veiled racism is a very funny running joke.
On top of this somewhat political humour, the whole film pokes fun at whodunit clichés. A few of the subtler jokes may depend on the viewer’s familiarity with generic murder mysteries, but for the most part, no one is left out of the humour.
Part of the film’s genius is the hilarious blatancy of some of the mockeries – for example, it seems like nearly every other scene presents us with a frame cut across with an utterly conspicuous knife, or, even more flagrantly, a character will take a seat on a chair bordered with an immoderate myriad of knives, with every blade pointed towards the occupant’s head.
Quite literally ‘pointing’ fun at the tendency for murder mysteries to pepper symbols and emblematic motifs across the film to set the tone and heighten suspicion, Knives Out uses a hyperbolic version of this very technique to bolster its comedy.
Knives Out is fabulously entertaining, carried through effortlessly by ingenious casting and well-placed humour. The ending is as satisfying as the rest is gripping, and Rian Johnson’s playful take on a classic genre leaves little to be desired.