Knives Out is a throw-back as a big-screen murder mystery. This is the type of film made all the time during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the sixties and seventies, these sort of films began to feature all-star casts such as Murder in the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun.
Then, the big-screen detective faded in popularity and murder mysteries became almost exclusively the province of television. There have been exceptions over the years, but in general, the murder mystery has been replaced by more Thrillers at the box office or occasionally we’ll see Sherlock Holmes re-imagined as a steampunk action film.
What Knives Out offers is an original, modern day American murder mystery that feels a lot like Agatha Christie. Mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his mansion the night after his birthday party. He informed family members that he was going to be making some changes to the financial arrangements that his family members enjoy, including to his will. The physical evidence points to a suicide, however Louisiana-based Benoit Leblanc (Daniel Crag), “the last of the gentlemen sleuths” has been hired to investigate the case by an anonymous client. Due to his reputation, the local police take a second look at the case and find that all is not as it seems.
Daniel Craig is good at playing this eccentric detective. There’s a touch of Columbo that has most of the household not taking him as seriously as they should. He has many quirks to his method, plus great human touches. He calls to mind Hercule Poirot. The accent is only so-so, but to be fair some Poirot actors are a bit dodgy.
Ana de Armas has a lovable turn as Marta, the dead man’s nurse and his best friend who Benoit designates as his Watson, as he has a hint that she knows far more than she’s letting on.
We also have a supporting cast with Hollywood mainstays like Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and lesser known competent character actors, and some younger actors who know what they’re doing.
The mystery itself is something right out of a classic mystery novel and while the plot is complicated, some might say convoluted, it’s played out and resolved with a wonderful sense of style.
While this has a lot of throwbacks, it’s still set in the modern day and also includes enough modern touches to make the story work. In a lot of old detective stories, the victim is a really horrible person to nearly everyone they met. Here, I think there’s more nuance. Harlan does things that makes his family angry and provides good murder motives, but he’s still a decent guy whose actions are taken out of an abundance of concern. He’s actually an interesting person who has complex relationships. The main characters are handled pretty well in that regards.
The family is also a nice mix of modern day characters. They reflect a lot of aspects of society, including the current political divides, but the movie resists the urge to paint some family members as better based on politics or cultural alignment. In fact, with most of the family, it just means that they are equally horrid but in different ways.
There are also some great camera techniques that are used to enhance our enjoyment of the story without overwhelming us with CGI effects. It’s a well-balanced mix of classic and modern storytelling.
If I have one issue with the story, it’s that Marta has an unusual tell that means she throws up when she lies. I’m not a fan of gross out humor, and it was used to facilitate a couple of the laziest writing moments in the film.
Beyond that, this is good. This is a recent Hollywood film that lives up to its hype and I can only hope its success will lead to more films like it.
Based on its returns, I’m hopeful. It grossed $320 million at the box office. That’s not Marvel Movie money, Ant Man and the Wasp grossed $622 million the same year. However, Knives Out did this with a $40 million budget, which is 1/4-1/5 of Ant Man and the Wasp. Knives Out shows there’s still an audience for a well-made and well-written detective movie.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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