Concerning expectations, what first comes to find when you think of a “whodunit” is probably a classic tale of a bunch of rich people gathering for some unknown or nefarious purpose at a mansion before one of them gets murdered. Though murder-mysteries are still around, few movies have been able to deconstruct the genre or make a parody of it that also works as an actual mystery. Clue did it in 1985, and now writer and director Rian Johnson follows in those footsteps with Knives Out.
Here, it begins with a death. Only this isn’t really a murder, but the apparent suicide of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) the morning after his 85th birthday party. Though it should be an open-and-shut case, famed southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play. Even though there is no physical evidence of someone being with Harlan when he died, the fact that he slit his throat is unusual. Then again, nothing about the Thrombeys is usual.
Starting from the opening scene, which begins with a wide shot of a creepy and huge mansion, accompanied by Nathan Johnson’s excellent ethereal orchestral score, Rian Johnson gives the movie a grand and classic feel that pays homage to Agatha Christie mysteries and Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, while giving the film a good dose of broad comedy.
Blanc mostly sits in the background and observes as two police detectives (the wonderful and hilarious duo of LaKeith Stanfield and surprising stand-out Noah Segan, who deserve their own spin-off) investigate this increasingly suspicious family. Johnson uses this structure to introduce the audience to the whole cast, which is an impressive list of names. The family consists of a variety of well-defined characters, including a neo-nazi social media troll, the head of a Goop-like self-help company, and of course the black sheep of the family, here in the form of the vulgar Ransom (Chris Evans), who everyone heard fighting with Harlan the night of his death.
The interrogation is an absurd and hilarious way to not only get to know these characters, but the way they feel about each other. One character will begin to tell what happened the night of the party, only for the film to immediately cut to another person contradicting everything the first said. This is paired with flashbacks that showcase cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s excellent camerawork, which uses whip pans and tracking shots to tell us everything we need to know about the party and what the guests did.
It’s as Blanc begins to piece together the events of the night that he takes a liking to Harlan’s longtime caregiver, Marta (Ana de Armas). Despite the fact that she’s devastated by what she’s seen, Blanc decides to enlist her to be the Watson to his Sherlock because of her inherent kindness and her physical inability to lie. It’s here that the whodunit evolves into something more.
Despite not being advertised as a main character, Marta is the heart and soul of the movie, and this is de Armas’s best performance yet. She’s able to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders as the one person who was closest to Harlan, not to mention the sadness of having been the one to discover the body. But she also excels at comedy, especially when it comes to her physical reaction to lying.
In a film with such a large ensemble, some are bound to make bigger impressions than others. Though the casting is pitch-perfect and there is no weak link, there are definite standouts. Noah Segan steals every scene he’s in, dishing out irreverent and hilarious one-liners. Daniel Craig gives a fantastic performance that should make everyone excited for his post-Bond career. His Poirot-inspired detective with a thick Kentucky accent and a liking for metaphors about donuts is very over the top, but Craig’s delivery of quick and witty lines with extreme gravitas makes it believable. Chris Evans delivers a very different performance than Captain America, but fans of Scott Pilgrim will eat up his role as a douchey rich guy with utter disdain for his equally douchey family.
Despite how you may think this story will end, by the end, that will all go out the window. Knives Out employs certain tropes of the genre, but it does it by chewing them up, spitting them out, and rearranging them to create something new. Nothing is as it seems–this is more Columbo than Clue. And though the film has a very old school feel to it, Rian Johnson isn’t above making current references like a joke about Hamilton or a nod to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver.
In taking the genre into modern times, Knives Out also has some important things to say about current politics. Just like with the tropes of the genre, Rian Johnson looks at the politics of classic whodunits–affluent people being suspicious of the maid or butler murdering them–and updates them to become irrational fears of rich people who think that immigrants are coming to the country to take over jobs and destroy some notion of an ancestral home or a non-existent birthright. The Thrombeys can tell Marta that she is like part of the family as many times as they want, and they may promise that they’ll take care of her now that her employer is dead, but they can’t even remember where she’s originally from, and are willing to turn against her as soon as it becomes convenient for them.
Taking a well-established–if old-fashioned–genre and updating it to resonate with modern audiences is no small feat. Making a 130-minute movie feel like 1-hour is even harder. But when it comes to making a movie that’s entertaining, thoughtful, sharply written, and undeniably creative, Rian Johnson is guilty as charged.