Knives Out (2019) Review
EVERYONE HAS A MOTIVE,
NO ONE HAS A CLUE
In the many genre realms of cinematic storytelling, the classic narrative of a “whodunit” has been a time-honored plot device; providing a dubious looking into mystery and intrigue. The definition of a “whodunit” is a story or play about a murder in which the identity of the murder is not revealed until the end, with the feature delving into various mechanics of align the pieces (and players) as to who committed the crime and unveiling the true motive behind it. This form of narrative storytelling has been commonplace throughout the decades of filmmaking and spanning a variety of motion pictures such as The Usual Suspects, Clue, Rear Window, Psycho, Murder on the Orient Express, Memento, The Nice Guys, A Shot in the Dark, and LA Confidential just to name a few. Now, Lionsgate and director Rian Johnson present the latest endeavor in the “whodunit” film genre with the movie Knives Out. Does the feature solve its case in a entertaining and engrossing way or does it get entangled within its own messy web of deception and intrigue?
As a seasoned and celebrated mystery author, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has just celebrated his birthday with his family gathering at their elaborate manor estate, ending the night of festivities with a suicide in his study, slicing his own throat, and being discovered the next morning. While the shocking news rattles all, questions need to be answered, with Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) arriving on the scene to interview Harlan’s children, including his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and his son Walt (Michael Shannon), as well as his extended family, including his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), his daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), and his grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Observing the investigation with Detective Elliot is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator hired to explore the strange end to a seemingly beloved man, joining the authorities as they sniff around the home for clues, learning more about the dwelling which inspired many of Harlan’s best-seller novels. Thrown into the mix is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s private nurse who’s witnessed things about the evening she can’t fully comprehend, trying to dodge Blanc’s keen observations and obscure sleuthing as mystery behind who killed Harlan Thrombey slowly comes to light…. for better or worse.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I do have to admit that I that do love a good and classic “whodunit” story. I don’t know why I like about as many of the narratives from this yarn have been done and redone multiple times for the past several decades, especially in cinematic storytelling. There’s always a big crime / mystery to solve (usually involving some type of murder or kidnapping) and a lot of potential suspects that come into play within the narrative, with plenty of misdirection in their motives, which then in-turn lead up to the “big reveal” as a sort of grandiose twist; expelling the culprit behind the crime. As I said, this narrative has been done before in countless stories, but its how the motion picture delivers this catalyst plot device, which makes the whole journey compelling and both entertaining / rewarding. Stories like Murder on the Orient Express (pick anyone film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic novel) and Clue are some of the prime examples of this, but there are some other ones as well, with some of favorite ones being The Usual Suspects, Gone Girl, and heck even Zootopia plays up these commonly used narratives of the “whodunit” variety.
Of course, this brings up my review about the movie Knives Out, the 2019 theatrical film that’s the latest “whodunit” drama in this category. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie when it first was announced, except for the fact that director Rian Johnson was gonna be directing it. As time went on, the film’s cast was being slowly announced to the project, which certainly did garnish some interest from me as majority I do like from their previous projects. Naturally, as I mentioned above, I always do like a good “whodunit” endeavor, so I was more and more interested to see this movie, especially after seeing the film’s various trailers and marketing campaigns for the film. Plus, I did hear a lot of “word of mouth” from the film during its advance screening at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, which (again) got me interested in seeing the movie. Thus, I decided to check out Knives Out during its opening night, but, due to my work (retail and all during the holidays) I had to push doing my review for the film to a later date. Well, now it is time to delve into this murder mystery feature and give my opinion on it. What did I think of it? Well, I liked it. Despite a few nitpicks and criticism, Knives Out is a fun and thrilling ride; taking a new slice of the classic “whodunit” storytelling and stands out with its talented cast and its overall subversion from the film’s director. It doesn’t really “break the mold” of the commonplace narrative of the “whodunit”, but it certainly is fun romp in its narrative tropes.
Knives Out is directed by Rian Johnson, whose previous directorial credits includes such films like Brick, Looper, and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Giving the very mixed to almost disdain opinions amongst the likeability of The Last Jedi, Johnson need a sort of project to sort of “bounce back” from that particular feature and he certainly does that with Knives Out. True, Johnson is quite a talented director, but this film allows the director to refocused his skills and present a more “smaller” scale feature that doesn’t involve large / expansive blockbuster sequences and overtly high anticipation / expectations from millions of viewers of a long-running franchise. Thus, in comparison of the two (Knives Out to The Last Jedi), I have to say that Knives Out comes out as the better, with Johnson playing more to the commonly used narrative of a “murder mystery” story and heavy reliance on its selection of characters who have their roles to be in the “whodunit”. Thus, Johnson is more equipped to handle this arena (compared to The Last Jedi) and certainly shows, allowing more of the film to flow correctly and more cohesive way; staging events and adding more intrigue to the overall mystery of Harlan’s death. As to be expected, Johnson is able to play around with the somewhat expectation of a viewer’s expectations of a “whodunit” scenario; introducing several new twists and turns to the tried and true formula of this plot device. It’s the ability to subvert a viewer’s attention and prediction is where the film finds its calling. Like the film’s tagline says “Everyone has a motive. No one has a clue.”
Along with playing the director for the film, Johnson plays “double duty” as Knives Out’s writer; penning the script in dubious deception and mystery throughout. As I said before, there’s plenty of scenarios of misdirection along the way, but Johnson crafts the movie’s script in a sort of delectable way; introducing the actual murderer of Harlan Thorneby an little bit before the halfway point of the feature and how this particular individual tries to evade the ever-snooping sleuthing of Detective Blanc. Naturally, Johnson writes the third act to be “grand finale” in which all is revealed, but allowing new ideas and the ever-changing of “who’s who” and the motives they potential have for wanting to kill Harlan is what makes the film’s story interesting and engrossing throughout. Plus, the script itself is a little bit sharper than what I was expecting it to be, which is quite terrific in its own right. Thus, there are plenty of “new tricks’ in this old form of storytelling and Johnson’s script proves that point. In addition, Johnson doesn’t make the movie all “gloom and doom” within murder mystery aspect as the feature has a sort of “offbeat” humor within its context as well as the film’s script, which (thanks to the movie’s stellar cast) has plenty of comedic charm to the proceedings. That being said, Johnson does focus at what’s at stake in the narrative and never looses sight of that, with the film’s script being infused with some interesting commentary pieces ranging from the family dynamics (extended and immediate family), the classic tropes of a detective story, and (to a certain degree) American politics.
In terms of production quality, Knives Out is quite a solid piece of filmmaking and certainly feels like a presentation that’s straight out of a classic “murder mystery” with some of the background set-pieces being more of character than some of the actual supporting players in the story. Of course, I’m mostly talking about the Thrombey estate, which is part palatial opulence / grandiose and part off-beat and clutter with eclectic trinkets, furniture, and other quirky decorum. As I said, the Thrombey estate certainly has plenty of character in almost everyone, so I do have mention the talents that help bring this about such as Jermey Woodward (art direction), David Crank (production design), and David Schlesinger (set decorations). Also, the cinematography work by Steve Yedlin is also quite good in the film and certainly brings a slickness and creative cinematic nuances throughout the movie, especially in some of the more elaborate sequences in the Thorneby estate. Additionally, the movie’s score, which was composed by Nathan Johnson, is great composition piece; complimenting the feature within its melodies and overtones throughout.
Despite the film gaining a lot of momentum with critics and receiving a lot of praise, Knives Out doesn’t walk away completely unscathed from criticism. To me, while Johnson toils around with the commonly used themes and nuances that usually accompany a “whodunit” mystery, there is still plenty that plays up the tried and true formula of being predictable. What do I mean? Well, try as he might, Johnson still can’t shake the genic makeup of the storytelling art of these narratives. Thus, I kind of figured out some of the misdirection angles and a few of the twists that the movie throws at a viewer’s perception of the story being told. Again, while that might be a little intentional, it still makes the movie not quite as prolithic and ingenious as some might think or believe the movie to be. Don’t get wrong, I thought that Knives Out was quite a good motion picture, but I was intrigued and in the mystery of other similar movies (The Usual Suspect, Gone Girl, or The Murder on the Orient Express) more so on who killed Harlan Thorneby in the film. Speaking of which, I kind wanted a bit more murder in the story. I know that sounds a bit “weird” to say, I kind of expected a little bit twisty rather than what’s final presented in how Harlan was killed and who killed him.
Additionally, the film’s pace is at times a bit wonky and slows down every now and again, with the feature having a bit of problems within its narrative flow. The structure is there, but how it meanders through its story could’ve been better handled. This also brings up the film’s runtime, with Knives Out clocking in at around 130 minutes (two hours and ten minutes). I probably say that the film could’ve been tightened; shaving off a good ten minutes or so for a better narrative and could’ve possibly eliminated the sluggish pace here and there in the movie.
What definitely stands out in the film is Knives Out’s cast, with plenty of star power and / or recognizable acting talents playing the various characters that populate the feature’s setting and narrative. Of course, acting as the “big ticketed” attraction star is actor Daniel Craig, who plays the character of Benoit Blanc, a private detective who is mysteriously called upon to investigate Harlan’s murder. As expected, the character of Blanc is somewhat a generic make-up of the whole “whodunit” as the sleuthing detective who is usually sent to uncover the clues and solve the case / mystery behind the sudden crime. So, the character isn’t exactly fresh or new. However, Craig, known for his roles in Casino Royale, Logan Lucky, and Layer Cake, delivers a fun / amusing portrayal of this classic detective trope; having a southern drawl to his voice, which quite amusing throughout to hear, and certainly has the most energetic enthusiasm of the cast. Thus, while I will always love Craig as the character of James Bond, his performance of Benoit Blanc is exceptionally memorable and certainly as a way with the commonly used character in a murder mystery narrative.
Behind Craig’s Blanc, actress Ana de Armas turns a fine performance in the role of Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse and close caretaker. For sure, Marta lies at the heart of Knives Out and with Armas, known for her roles in War Dogs, Blade Runner 2049, and The Boarding School, doing an exceptional job as the somewhat main protagonist of the feature; focusing on her journey from start to finish. As mentioned before, Johnson certainly does toil around with the “whodunit” narrative and certainly does that with Marta. Additionally, actor Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) does a solid job in the role of spoiled boy Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Harlan’s grandson / Lind and Richard sons). As to be expected, the character does play a role in the movie with Evans playing their character with effectiveness. Plus, it quite interesting (almost refreshing) to see Evan playing a character that’s outside the superhero genre.
Majority of the large cast, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween and True Lies) as Harlan’s eldest daughter Linda Drysdale, actor Don Johnson (Book Club and The Other Woman) as Harlan’s son-in-law / Linda’s wife Richard Drysdale, actor Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire and Man of Steel) as Harlan’s youngest son Walter Thrombey, actress Riki Lindhome (Another Period and Enlightened) as Harlan’s daughter-in-law / Walter’s wife Donna Thrombey, actor Jaeden Martell (The Book of Henry and IT) as Harlan’s grandson / Walt and Donna’s son Jacob Thrombey, actress Toni Collette (Hereditary and Little Miss Sunshine) as Harlan’s deceased son Neil widow Joni Thrombey, and actress Katherine Langford (Love, Simon and 13 Reason Why) as Neil and Joni’s daughter Meg Thrombey, are delegated to supporting roles. Of course, all these acting talents are quite recognizable / standing screen presence, so their involvement in Knives Out is fantastic, despite being sometimes pushed to the secondary positions. Lastly, in this category of characters, seasoned actor Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music and All the Money in the World) does a solid job as the wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey. As to be expected, Harlan’s appearance is sprinkled throughout the feature (via flashback scenes), but Plummer still gives a memorable performance throughout.
The rest of the cast, including actor Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You and Atlanta) as Detective Lieutenant Elliot, actor Noah Segan (Brick and Looper) as Trooper Wagner, actress Edi Patterson (The Righteous Gemstone and Vice Principals) as Harlan’s housekeeper Fran, actress K Callan (Carnivale and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) as Harlan’s elderly mother Wancetta “Great Nana” Thormbey, actor Frank Oz (did not know that was him in the movie…..Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and The Muppet Shows) as Harlan’s lawyer Alan Stevens, actor M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk and Blade Runner) as Mr. Proofoc, actress Marlene Forte (The Fosters and Altered Carbon) as Marta’s mother Mrs. Cabrera, and actress Shyrley Rodriguez (Pacific Rim: Uprising and The Get Down) as Marta’s sister Alicia Cabrera, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the movie. While most of them are usually in the background (with one or two moments in the “spotlight”), these acting talents still give wholesome small character roles respectfully.
Who killed Harlan Thrombey and why? is the central theme / question that many ask in the movie Knives Out. Director Rian Johnson latest film takes a “stab” (quite literally) into the classic “whodunit” murder mystery narrative and present by his own means of cinematic storytelling; putting a new spin upon an old classic trope plot device. While the movie can’t overcome the predictable nature of the commonly used formulas / nuances of a murder mystery as well as a few sluggish pacing within its runtime and not fully utilizing some of its characters, the film still finds its engrossing rhythm of entertainment, especially thanks to Johnson’s direction, some of the unique twists in the story, the cinematography / presentation, and to the film’s cast. To me, I really liked this movie. It had its fair share problems (though some were minor ones to me), so I don’t think its quite as ingenious as some are making the film to be, but I was still quite enjoyable and kept me really interested in the feature from start to finish. Thus, my recommendation for the movie is a solid “highly recommended” as it is a crowd pleaser film that many will come to enjoy as offers up some slightly different than the common tentpoles of current Hollywood releases (i.e. superhero blockbusters, derivate horror flicks, run-of-the-mill comedy productions, and the plethora of a “page to screen” adaptations). Plus, I think that many will agree (whether you liked this movie or not) that Johnson is still capable / talented director. Thus, in the end, despite a few areas that could’ve been ironed out, Knives Out turns out to be quite a wickedly fun “whodunit”; combining the somewhat off-beat / quirky nuances of Clue and turns it into a subversive take of the murder mystery yarn for a modern-day viewing audience.
4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: November 27th, 2019
Reviewed On: December 18th, 2019
Knives Out is 130 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material
Fantastic review! Sounds like a fully realized and exciting ‘whodunnit’ thriller!
It certainly was. It was a lot of fun to watch everything unfold and the film’s cast was solid in their respective roles.
Thanks for an excellent review, Jason! I was planning on seeing this one but it’s now on my must-see list.
It’s definitely an interesting and well-made / well-acted movie. It doesn’t “redefined” the whodunit genre, but sure plays around with a person’s expectations.