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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: Knives Out (2019)



In an ornate Gothic mansion in rural America, a family gathers to mourn the loss of their patriarch, acclaimed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer (Beginners, All the Money in the World) yet they cannot understand why an apparent suicide is still under investigation by both the police and a private detective…


One of this year’s surprise hits, Knives Out is a knowingly old-fashioned kind of murder mystery. It draws inspiration from the 1985 boardgame-to-film adaptation Cluedo (or ‘Clue’ if you’re from the States) – and says as much out loud.


It also references Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Anthony Shaffer’s 1972 film Sleuth, which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and the Ustinov-era Poirot movies like Death On The Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982) – and loads of other crimey stuff too, but let’s not get too boring about it all.


It is worth mentioning all of the above though – not to sound clever, but rather to make two points. Namely, and first of all, the film exploits the familiar language of those by-now hackneyed, rather creaky movies. You have seen this kind of thing before, and Knives Out knows it.



Secondly, the movie makes a clear comment in the way it to some degree satirizes the ‘cosy detective’ genre; the satire it offers is hardly cutting, and the title alludes to a kind of nastiness and brutality not in evidence across the slightly generous 130 minute running time, but still ‘Twisty Romp’ would probably have been a harder film to market.


In reference to the first point, there is a good reason why murder mystery movies are rare beasts nowadays. While television has not quite killed the genre, it has certainly left it vastly depleted. Knives Out even comments on this, showing Murder She Wrote on TV within the film, and dropping a number of other references too.


This acknowledgement points to how hard it is to find any original programming on the box these days that does not offer some variation on the crime genre – and likewise the bestseller shelves of your local bookshop.


All of this means that although movies like Kenneth Branagh’s The Murder on the Orient Express and Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River from 2017, or 2016’s The Girl on the Train and 2014’s Gone Girl can become hits, a modern murder mystery film has to do something really special to break out – or even just compete with the endless churn of small screen detective shows.



Knives Out does do this, just about, primarily by telling a great, twisty, layered story – the hardest part of a good mystery tale. Credit for this can only really go to writer/director Rian Johnson who, despite taking a justified kicking for his work on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has an enviable reputation for making genre-twisting crime movies.


If you have not seen Johnson’s 2005 feature film debut Brick, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, or his 2012 sci-fi noir Looper, again with Gordon Levitt as well as Bruce Willis, I recommend you do; they speak to Johnson’s gift for this kind of filmmaking and are arguably better films than this one. Indeed, I do wonder whether the film will lose much being seen on the small screen – and whether that means it has failed in one of its objectives.


Something else that distinguishes Knives Out however is that it is incredibly stylish. From costume to hair to set to music, it looks and sounds amazing, evoking the 1970s while not being stuck in them. It offers a really sharp looking and sounding cinematic experience, and has a very cool – knowingly cool – cast full of cult icons. It is them that you’re paying for really, and no BBC, HBO, AMC or Showtime series could hope to compete with this lot.


The ensemble includes, and take a deep breath: Jamie Lee Curtis (the Halloween franchise, True Lies), Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Take Shelter), Don Johnson (Nash Bridges, Miami Vice), Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You, Get Out), and Toni Colette (Hereditary, Muriel’s Wedding) – and there are a number of other supporting players too. Some of them have little-to-nothing to do, but the actors mentioned above do at least get one moment each in which to shine.



As for the second point, the comment the film wants to make – and, dare I say it, the area it seeks to exploit in classic 1970s genre movie style – is the theme of race. In particular, the film looks at the idea of American anti-Hispanic white racism and nationalism, counter-posing the wealthy, good-for-nothing Thrombey family with carer-cum-maid Martha, played by rising star Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049, War Dogs).


The idea, ultimately, is that before the film starts Martha has been looking after the elderly, phenomenally wealthy crime writer whose death is the central mystery. She had become his best friend as well as the person who kept him alive, and although we see most of the film from her perspective everyone in the movie is a suspect, including her.


This all means that the movie takes the time-worn idea of ‘The Butler Did It’ and plays with it somewhat. Indeed, without spoiling anything about the story, Martha becomes Watson to private detective Benoit Blanc’s Sherlock.


Blanc, played by Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), is clearly having a great time in the movie, and both relish a central thread of the narrative that relies on the idea that Martha cannot lie without vomiting. Does this mean that we can trust her? And does this mean that Blanc himself believes her version of events?



It is a brilliant, very silly idea, and leads to some well-earned laughs – as you might expect.

Alas, while de Armas is wonderful in this film, her character is also, unfortunately, an implausibly ‘good person’. Part of the reason why American critics have gone so gaga for the film seems to be that it is just so emphatically politically correct. Saying that you don’t like it would be a bit like kicking a puppy.


The movie is also conscientiously cathartic, something central to the appeal of crime narratives, and considering the state of American discourse it is quite understandable that audiences might be seeking some good-hearted escapism. I say this minded to acknowledge that, while it is hard to be too annoyed with Knives Out overall, there is no denying that the film might have looked to have been a bit bolder and/or braver in its ending.


Then again, I suppose wish fulfilment does have its place.


Another minor issue I take with the film is that for the first hour it heavily relies on the same thing over and over. We see a sequence of actors sitting in chairs, being interrogated by Stanfield’s Detective Elliot and Craig’s Benoit Blanc, replete with his deliciously stupid Southern accent. Each of these conversations leads to a flashback, and it’s a good thing that the film starts to mix things up in due course because, while whimsical and packed with relevant details, this sequence of conversations does become a little repetitive and one note after a time.


What saves the film, really, is the arrival of black sheep of the family, Hugh Ransom Drysdale, played by Chris Evans (Captain America, Gifted). All charm, sleaze and elegant knitwear, Ransom is the film’s Ace-in-the-Hole, and Evan’s performance is genuinely excellent. I truly hope to see him deploying his star power and gravitas similarly in his post-Marvel career, elevating good, mid-budget movies and helping them tip over into the mainstream.



All-in-all then, Knives Out is a good, very fun film. It is probably a bit sweary for some audiences, and I am not sure that the growing drumbeat for a series of Benoit Blanc mysteries is quite justified, but I can understand the sentiment.


This is because it’s so stylish, so delightfully hammy, mostly very well plotted and impeccable in tone.


Some of its characters get short shrift – if you have seen it, think about Riki Lindhome’s character Donna. Why is she there at all? – but still, it does a lot more right than wrong.


A film for the good guys, definitely, and we need that kind of movie from time to time.

I only wish that the issues at the dark heart of the film could be solved so neatly, then wrapped up and delivered to us all with a bow on top…

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