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Review: Knives Out dir. Rian Johnson
A marvellous modern addition to the genre
Rian Johnson’s murder mystery film Knives Out is a marvellous modern addition to the genre and achieves the difficult balance of creating a new story while also paying homage to the classics that came before it.
The influence of Agatha Christie, queen of crime, is felt everywhere within the murder mystery genre yet it remains unusual to find a story that manages to live up to her immense legacy. Knives Out is one of those stories.
Knives Out opens with the death of Harlan Thrombey, an extremely successful mystery novelist who has just celebrated his 85th birthday surrounded by his family. In the first 20 minutes of the film, we meet the members of his family present at the party, including self-made (from a $1 million loan) Linda, her cheating husband Richard, doormat Walt and influencer Joni, and discover that somehow most of them have secrets worth killing for.
Joni Thrombey: I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.
Enter what is undoubtedly the most delightful thing about this movie: Daniel Craig as lead detective Benoit Blanc. Johnson’s choice to cast an iconically British actor known for playing James Bond as a detective with an outrageously Southern accent is so bold that it is immediately brilliant.
As an audience member, it’s fun to follow a new detective who skirts the line between clever and clueless. We do not know his reputation like Poirot. In this story, Blanc is a piece of puzzle as well.
Between the suspects’ lies and Blanc’s investigative interruptions, the opening interview structure allows us to jump straight into the story. The film has barely begun and already we have a setting, victim and a lineup of suspects established.
Knives Out is a firmly funny movie and this is clear from the beginning. So much of the humour in the early section of the film comes from a combination of superb editing, storytelling and quick cuts.
Joni telling Blanc that she will not be tricked into speaking badly about Walt cuts straight to Richard bad mouthing him. Each of the interviewees acts like the main character of the story, as represented by their memory of standing directly next to Harlan when his birthday cake was cut. Already, the stories are conflicting and not quite making sense.
Marta Cabrera: I've never been to a will reading.
Benoit Blanc: You'd think it'd be like a game show, but think of a community theatre production of a tax return.
Knives Out is a great example of a story not afraid to place itself in a specific time period, making references to the pop culture and politics of the late 2010s. Agatha Christie’s stories are often celebrated as ‘timeless’ when in fact the opposite is true. While the value of her stories may long outlast her lifetime, she wrote stories that were clearly set in the 20th century, marked by references to the two World Wars. It is time for us to write iconic 21st century murder mysteries and Johnson is putting his mark on the genre.
Johnson has also managed to find a niche that Christie never really fully explored: telling the story from the point of view of ‘the help’. Marta Cabrera, nurse to Harlan Thrombey and outsider to the family at large, emerges as the unexpected protagonist of Knives Out.
Ana de Armas gives a truly excellent performance as Marta and it is her character that drives the emotion of the story. She is the beating heart of a truly excellent ensemble.
Lieutenant Elliott: Look around. I mean, the guy practically lives in a Clue board.
The last great character in Knives Out is the Thrombey mansion. Overflowing with Harlan’s knick knacks, books and knives with a portrait of the man himself in the entrance hallway, it is the perfect eerie setting for this story brought to life by cinematographer Steve Yedlin.
Knives Out is a great foray into 21st century murder mystery movies and hopefully it sparks a new post-Christie generation to come.
Rating: Highly recommend
Film: Knives Out
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Chris Evans (Ransom Drysdale), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walt Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombey), Lakeith Stanfield (Detective Lieutenant Elliott), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey) and Christopher Plumber (Harlan Thrombey)
Release Date: 27 November 2019
Distributor: Cinematic release (currently streaming on Netflix and Binge)