They just don’t make whodunnits like they used to. Plenty of mysteries, thrillers, and suspenseful dramas play at movie theaters. A good amount of them even deal with a suspicious death. But few are done in the styling of Agatha Christie or Clue. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out takes the classic whodunnit and adds some modern twists in a stylish and fun movie.
Harlan Thrombey is a popular writer who has done very well for himself. To varying degrees, the same can be said for his children. From publishing houses to real estate, the Thrombey offspring have made names for themselves. Things go unexpectedly the night of the patriarch’s 85th birthday party. This leads to an investigation that involves suicide, murder, and a large inheritance.
One aspect of many whodunnits is the number of characters. Knives Out boasts an impressive ensemble cast. The list of names include Jaime Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette. The trouble with large casts is the possibility of some characters getting lost in the shuffle. (Both parts of Andy Muschietti’s It are a great example.) Thankfully, that is never an issue here.
For starters, the story does an excellent job of introducing its many players. The audience will quickly learn what type of person each person is. It is also clear why they may have a motive for murder. Knives Out deals with all of its characters early, leaving more time to focus on the actual mystery. Even better, each character is given the proper amount of time. No one is shoehorned in or forgotten about.
The standout is Daniel Craig. As Benoit Blanc, Craig does an excellent job playing a famous private investigator overflowing with Southern charm. He is incredibly funny and has many memorable moments. The Thrombey family are an eccentric bunch, yet Blanc may out do them all. He also has the strong self assurance of Hercule Poirot. He is just as likely to stumble into answers as he is to find them.
Craig’s commitment to the role is what makes the whole thing work. The overly confident manner in which he carries himself clues audiences in on his personality. His homespun wisdom and southern affectations are tremendous. His voice almost literally drips with thick orange marmalade with each word he speaks. The whole thing should be comical – and there are some laugh out loud moments. What prevents it from being silly is the Blanc is in on the joke. He is not a character to be laughed at; he is laughing with the audience.
This is not to say Craig overshadows anyone. He does a great job of adding to the proceedings, allowing the others to take center stage as needed. Curtis is great as Linda Drysdale-Thrombey while Chris Evans has some great scenes as her son, Ransom. Noah Segan has a smaller role compared to others, but he makes the most of each moment. It is impressive that a cast this large has no flaws.
Knives Out is consistently funny. The family alone is an interesting bunch. Along with tycoons of industry, there is also an alt-right internet troll and a social activist committed to making everyone’s lives better. But Johnson does not limit the comedy to jokes about people in today’s society. There is also slapstick, witty comebacks, and good old fashioned toilet humor. The laughs are as varied as the suspects.
The script also deals with deeper themes. The writing is very transparent in dealing with class issues. There is a clear divide between the Thrombeys and the staff who care for their opulent manor. Nowhere is this made more clear than when a character talks about birthright and what they are entitled to. These parts of the movie will be polarizing. Some may feel the moments come with the natural flow of the film while others will find them heavy handed and forced. Wherever a person’s opinions may lie, the fact is Johnson is able to cleverly make a statement in the context of his whodunit.
This may be the best part of Knives Out. It is being marketed as a modern take on a classic premise. This is absolutely the case as Johnson makes some bold decisions regarding how the mystery plays out. The movie does a great job of almost contradicting itself. It is a murder mystery in which the actual mystery is placed in the background. It is also a deep character study that looks at society as a whole. All the while the plot is driven by questions and clues. The story does a tremendous of interweaving its various plots and themes while also keeping the audience invested in what is happening.
Knives Out is a case in which familiarity does not breed contempt. Instead, its classic whodunit setting will comfort audiences. Even though they do not know where things are going, they have been here before. The story is different, with Johnson using different twists and turns to keep things from getting to predictable. The story also delivers a strong message that will resonate while Daniel Craig delivers one of the best performances of the year.