Knives Out lives and dies by the eccentricities of its riffing on murder mystery tropes.
Rian Johnson’s latest offering certainly is less polarizing than his stab at the Star Wars mythology. Knives Out features an incredible ensemble cast of quirky characters caught up in a skewed version of an Agatha Christie murder plot. Johnson leans heavily into his distinct sensibilities as a director, which creates a drama that is at turns clever, iconoclastic, and self-indulgent.
Knives Out (2019)
The morning after celebrated mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) gathers his family for his 85th birthday, he is discovered dead, his throat slit. While the police believe it to be a suicide, famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) believes someone was after the old man’s money.
Each family member turns out to have a motive to want the patriarch dead, and a reason to want to see Harlan’s nursemaid, Marta (Ana de Armas) take the blame. Benoit makes the reluctant Marta his assistant as he tracks down the clues.
The basic structure of Johnson’s film builds upon the DNA of Agatha Christie’s library of murder mysteries. You get an assemblage of rich, nasty people all hiding secrets while a brilliant but eccentric detective slowly picks away at the knots of their deceptions. The “famed patriarch dies and his family are all implicated” figures most famously in Christie’s novel, Crooked House, but it’s become a staple of the genre.
Johnson has a keen eye for the representative pillars of a genre. He deftly reworked noir genre to great effect in Brick, and deconstructed the “mob hitman tries to get out of the business” archetype in Looper. Here, he takes Christie’s penchant for stock characters, tight dialogue, and misdirection and makes it the vehicle for social satire.
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The attention to style extends beyond plot and characters. Johnson makes clever use of recognizable cinematic techniques of the genre. The establishing shots and opening sequence feel like you just turned on an episode of any period British detective series. Indeed, several detective serials are gleefully inserted into the background in winks to the audience.
The cinematography is lush yet restrained. The exterior shots are often awash in grey and tan tones. The interior shots use low-key lighting to cast deep shadows that juxtapose with burnished, rich colors that always look as if illuminated by firelight. Johnson also toys with depth of field, keeping items just out of focus before revealing them for effect.
Murder by Death.
The decision to locate so deeply in established genre conventions is a double-edged blade. A “whodunit” that is obviously a whodunit can come off as farce. Johnson’s penchant for winking allusions and sudden subversion of expectations can go too far in places. Benoit Blanc is such a Poirot stand-in, he becomes a caricature at times.
I found most of the other characters to fall on either side of this line. Many of the characters are unsubtle stereotypes which Johnson uses for social satire – to mixed effect. Chris Evans sinks his teeth into the role of the amoral narcissist grandson out for a payday. Others, like Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, are not given nearly enough development to be either subtle or obvious.
Little Grey Cells.
The balance between homage and parody haunts all of Johnson’s work. When he nails it, you get a delightful riff that reinvigorates and updates classic genres. When it gets too clever or indulgent, you wonder if he’s out to tear his subject apart. In Knives Out, he mostly nails it, but you notice where he doesn’t.
A strong cast evens out Johson’s wild strokes. Evans and Craig go all in and really exemplify the satirical notes. Ana de Armas and Plummer give restrained and emotionally powerful portrayals that help cement the human drama of the story. Blended together with style, Knives Out overcomes a few stumbles to be a very entertaining take on classic murder mysteries for a modern audience.