Knives Out

(4 Stars) Does everything a mystery should do and then some. Sharp and witty.

Oscar Nominations:

Original Screenplay (Rian Johnson)

There’s nothing really special about this movie except for the fact that it is just perfect entertainment and just what the doctor ordered right now.  Who doesn’t like a good murder mystery – full of twists and turns, intriguing characters, all of whom could easily be the murderer, and a setting that invites all the Sherlock Holmes metaphors, or perhaps even the Clue game – ‘The maid did it in the study with the knife’.  Except the maid didn’t do it, or at least, maybe not in the way you thought that she did!  (No, I haven’t given away a thing!)

Knives Out is set in a fabulous mansion, somewhere in New England (the movie was filmed entirely in Massachusetts) and aside from ‘the worst car chase ever’ from the fall countryside into and around a small town, all the action takes place in the country estate of Harlan Thrombey, himself a very successful murder mystery writer.  He’s getting old and after a family birthday party where he argues with everyone in his family, he is found dead upstairs in his study, throat slit by a knife.

The mansion might as well be a character itself, full of artifacts befitting a writer – multiple rooms, creaky stairs, and even a window leading to a secret passage.  Filled with antiques, and all kinds of interesting objects, one of the highlights is a chair made of knives.  It figures prominently when the suspects are interviewed.  The estate comes with acres of land and two hounds who, well, hounds do what they are supposed to in a murder mystery.

The movie fires on all cylinders thanks to two major ingredients, the cast and the script. The inspired cast is obviously having more fun making this movie than the law allows. And the artful script from Rian Johnson that exposes how the murder takes place early in the film, but then goes on with so many twists and turns that, by the end of the movie, you aren’t exactly sure what happened.  

Rian Johnson, who also directed the movie, previously wrote and directed Looper and Brick, movies with complicated plot lines.  He also wrote and directed the 2017 Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi.  He was Oscar nominated for this script and it was well deserved.  In addition to a whodunit that switches like a steep mountain road, he has also delivered some outstanding characters.  In addition, he manages to update events to the modern era by including pointed references to MAGA hats and a suspect’s immigration status.

None of the actors received acting nominations for their roles here, and yet this is one of the best ensemble casts seen in a long time.  Together they manage to portray a totally dysfunctional family who, selfish to the end, are more than willing to stab each other in the back to make sure they get the inheritance that they are due.  Christopher Plummer plays the old man who slits his own throat.  But while the police are willing to leave it at that, the mystery unfolds from the very beginning of the movie when Louisiana private detective Benoit Blanc is mysteriously called in to investigate the suicide which, he suspects, may, indeed, be foul play.  Daniel Craig plays the ‘Kentucky Fried’ Sherlock Holmes, and while he does a credible job with the southern accent, I couldn’t help but think of him instead as the suave and sophisticated very-British James Bond.  (I know actors hate it, but sometimes they get trapped by the roles they play).  Blanc has a terrific monologue summarizing the plot as a donut with a hole that also has a hole – it’s so absurd it becomes funny, but Craig is having a blast.

The suspects are all Harlan’s children, grand-children, and in-laws, played by actors like Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Toni Collette.  Chris Evans (I.e. Captain America) is the trust fund grandson, Ransom, who takes incredible delight telling everyone else to ‘Eat Shit’ at the reading of the will.  Evans breaks out of his super-hero role to give us an interesting take on the spoiled grandson who takes great pleasure in baiting everyone in the family.

The breakout performance here, though came from Ana de Armas, a beautiful young Cuban actress, who plays Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s assistant and nurse and the only suspect who is not a family member.  She was previously the stunning hologram companion in Blade Runner 2049.  (And she will be appearing with Daniel Craig again as a Bond Girl in this year’s No Time to Die!).  She has probably the most important and complex role in this movie as her character has the unusual trait of being unable to tell a lie without throwing up.  Benoit Blanc uses that trait, several times, to identify the true killer.

She is also the one who actually witnesses Harlan slit his own throat.  But wait!  If he committed suicide, then what’s the mystery?  Well, that is, indeed, the story – things aren’t exactly what they seem to be.  The delightful script will stand everything up side down, several times, before you are through.  Obviously, I’m not going to tell you the secret, but I will give you a clue – follow the knives…

Just because it is so much fun, and we need so much of that right now, I give the movie 4 stars.

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