They really don’t make films like this anymore. And I mean that quite literally. Once upon a time cinema was full of crime stories, film noirs, paranoid suspense thrillers, police procedurals and whodunnits. But those days are long past and today such fare has been consigned to the small screen, replaced by explosive blockbusters, bombastic superhero films and dazzling science fiction franchises. When stalwarts such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot do venture back into cinemas it’s invariably as radically amped-up versions of their old selves possessed of near-superhuman mental and physical prowess.
Knives Out is testament to writer-director Rian Johnson’s current standing in Hollywood, that he was able to get this relatively small scale passion project off the ground and to bring such an impressive Hollywood A-list cast along for the ride. And you can see why something so comfortingly familiar, small-scale and old-fashioned would appeal to Johnson as a way of recovering from the critical bruising he took from his work on the divisive Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi.
The film is firmly and knowingly located in Agatha Christie territory, harking back not just to the Finney/Ustinov Poirot films of the 70s and 80s but also the likes of the socially biting Sleuth and the playful Deathtrap. and more recently with Downton Abbey forebear Gosford Park. Each of these films delivered a murder mystery with a healthy side serving of comedy, and it was indeed in the comedy category that Knives Out won a handful of Golden Globe Awards in 2019. But here the humour is generally subtle and wry (one scene has a suspect in back of shot trying to throw away a key piece of evidence, only for a friendly guard dog to see it as a game of fetch and dutifully return it to the crime scene) and not nearly as broad as, for example, Neil Simon’s Murder By Death which comprehensively parodied and skewered every known detective archetype then in existence.
That said, there’s no hiding the fact that the central figure of Benoit Blanc is a definite pastiche of Christie’s most famous sleuth. Although he is from the ‘uncouth’ American deep south rather the refined environs of Belgium, Blanc is every bit as absurd as Poirot ever was. He’s played by Daniel Craig in a spectacular piece of casting-against-type that succeeds in proving an utter triumph, the refined James Bond star incongruously playing the part as a drawling Plantation owner-type that causes one character to memorably quip that it must be an episode of “CSI: KFC”.
Blanc has been hired by an unknown party to to investigate the suspicious death of successful author Harlan Thrombey (the ever-magnificent Christopher Plummer) on the night of his 85th birthday party. The death has been provisionally ruled a suicide, but Blanc believes otherwise. The first act of the film follows a classic Christie construction, with each of the Thrombey family formally interviewed one-by-one by Blanc with the assistance of cynical police detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and gauche state trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). We even get on-screen captions announcing the name of each of the potential suspects to ensure there’s no confusion as we’re being introduced to such a sprawling cast, before we dive into a series of flashbacks showing what happened at the party. While there are no huge discrepancies (it doesn’t go “full Rashomon” in terms of subjectivity) there are nonetheless some revealing differences between their accounts as each party seeks to present themselves in the best light.
We first meet Harlan’s eldest child, ruthless real estate mogul Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) along with her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their spoilt playboy son Ransom (Chris Evans). Next up is middle child Joni (Toni Collette) who is a successful lifestyle guru, together with her student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). Lastly there is Walt (Michael Shannon), the downtrodden youngest son who runs Harlen’s publishing business who is joined by his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and proto-incel teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell). In addition there’s Harlan’s ancient and seemingly senile mother Wanetta who is comically swaddled in layers of thick fur coats and hats (making veteran actress K Callan unrecognisable in the process).
Also present is loyal housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), family lawyer Mr Stevens (Frank Oz), and groundskeeper Proofroc (M Emmet Walsh). But the most significant non-family member is Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and closest confidante who was the last person to see him alive on the night in question. As an outsider who has been privy to all the family’s deepest, darkest backstabbing secrets, she is the perfect ‘Watson’ to help Blanc in his investigations – especially once he discovers she is physically incapable of telling an untruth without literally throwing up. But as we find as the film progresses, that’s not to say that she can’t obfuscate while at the same time also telling the absolute truth…
The business-like first act concludes with a helpful, crisply stated summary of where everyone was at the time of Harlan’s death. But then the film changes tack, seemingly fully revealing its hand and transforming into something closer to an episode of Columbo in which we know what happened and whodunnit, and the interest now centres on if the perpetrator will get away with the crime, or whether – and how – Blanc will eventually manage to trip them up. Not that he seems a particularly impressive investigator: at one point a suspect turns round and says “You’re not a very good detective, are you?” which is fair in the circumstances, as is his response: “And you’re not a very good murderer”. He seems content to let events unfold and is certainly very far from the omnipotent Poirot or the inscrutable Miss Marple, although like the rumpled Columbo it’s definitely a mistake to underestimate him.
The film shifts again in the final act, this time transforming into something closer to a paranoid suspense movie in which our main protagonist can’t be sure who they can trust. The short answer is that anyone who suddenly starts acting differently is almost certainly up to no good: but whether it’s the simple venal reason of wanting to get their hands on Harlan’s fortune, or a more sinister complicity in his death, is something that takes a little more consideration.
Although that said, not too much consideration. One of the surprising things about Knives Out is that for a fiendishly twisted whodunnit, it’s actually surprisingly linear and straightforward, relying on distracting the audience with a simple misinterpretation of misheard word rather than outright deception. While some elements are inevitably initially held back, the flashbacks depicting the night of Harlan’s death are scrupulously fair and even helpfully obvious in flagging up points of interest that might otherwise escape us. Similarly, the characters that we meet at the start end up staying broadly true to themselves at the finish, so much so that if you were going to pick ‘obvious suspect number one’ at the start then you’ve pretty much got the thing nailed within the first ten minutes. There’s not even any handy iron-clad alibis on hand to crack. It’s almost as though the film is worried about alienating its audience by making things too difficult.
And that’s the problem with the film: the resulting puzzle is rather flat and essentially two dimensional, easily guessed and lacking the sort of final jaw-dropping surprise that you never see coming that was such an important part of those films from the 70s and 80s, and of Christie’s greatest novels. In many ways the obvious simplicity of the solution could in itself be said to be a cunning misdirection – I’ll admit that I accidentally passed over the correct solution in my pursuit of something more satisfyingly complex – but it does mean that the end of the film rather collapses like a beautifully prepared soufflé that’s been spoiled by having been taken out of the oven too soon.
That’s not to say that that the film as a whole isn’t very entertaining. Ultimately the murder mystery is only a hook to hang a superb ensemble cast performance, with Johnson’s lively direction adding a wonderful visual sheen when set against the grotesque background of Thrombey’s grand guignol mansion packed with bizarre artefacts and keepsakes, and the cast attired in luscious and wonderfully over the top costumes, all of which evokes something of the spirit of Tim Burton’s wildest gothic extravagances. In addition, Johnson earns a lot of brownie points from me by his inclusion of a scene in which characters sit around watching an old episode of Murder She Wrote on television starring Angela Lansbury as the American Marple, Jessica Fletcher, of whom I’m a huge fan. It shows that Johnson’s heart is very much in the right place as far as I’m concerned.
So while the film might be somewhat less than the sum of its individual strong parts – mainly due to the lack of an effective and thrilling central conundrum – I’ll certainly watch it again and will probably enjoy it more second time around with suitable adjusted expectations. And I wouldn’t mind seeing Benoit Blanc back in action for a further investigation at some point in the future, because Craig is a real revelation and a stand-out even in such top-flight company.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Knives Out is available to view in the UK via the main streaming services. It was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 30 2020, and the home media edition includes an audio commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurette and “Meet the Thrombeys” viral advertisements.