“Knives Out” seems at first a simple ‘whodunit’ murder mystery. But, over its 2 hours and 10 minutes, the initial, simple explanation of who is to blame gets increasingly complex.
An ensemble cast of many familiar faces (and a few new ones) adds fun to the drama. Happily, this story about a mysterious death turns into a dark comedy with laugh out loud twists.
The story opens with an old gothic mansion, set above a lake, somewhere in a New England autumn. Black dogs run from the house and a tray is carried to an upper study. The study door opens to reveal an old man lying on a sofa with his throat slit, dead. There are no preliminaries to introduce the man or his family. The film gives that task to the detectives (and the consulting private investigator) who interview each household member in turn.
The story goes from a loving family gathered to celebrate the old man’s birthday dinner, to numerous chinks in their armor: which family member might be on the outs; who may have yelled something at the old man; what he may have said to each of them about his new will. The members of this pleasant group of supportive offspring, who consider the nurse “a part of the family,” begin to show their true colors, recalling events and conversations that took place the night of his death.
Director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi) has assembled a compelling cast for this film. Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombley, a successful mystery writer with his own publishing empire. Jamie Lee Curtis is Linda Thrombley Drysdale, Harlan’s daughter, who built her own business with daddy’s help. Her husband, Richard Drysdale, is played by Don Johnson, and their entitled son, Ransom, is played by Chris Evans. Toni Collette plays the widowed Joni Thrombley, daughter-in-law to Harlan, and mother of college student Meg (Katherine Langford). Harlan’s other son, Walt Thrombley (Michael Shannon) runs Harlan’s publishing company. He is married to Donna (Riki Lindhome) and they have a son, the alt-right leaning Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Somewhat peripheral to the action is Harlan’s mother, Greatnana Wanetta Thrombley, played with quiet comic wisdom by K Callan.
Also key to the story is Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrera played by Ana de Armas. Rounding out the ensemble are the detectives. Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) takes the lead, asking questions of each household member, backed up by a Thrombley novel fan, State Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). Present in the background, and eventually taking over the questioning, is a private investigator, Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig with a broad southern accent.
There are wonderful details in this film: the strange items displayed around the house; Harlan’s research into methods of murder to write his books; Harlan’s touching friendship with Marta; Harlan’s family members as they reveal the poison that their wealth has become; Marta’s immigrant family and her own special gift for sensing the truth.
Knives Out may not win any awards, but it is a lot of fun to watch. Understandably, it is “Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material.” But there is not much of any of that. Instead, the film will keep you guessing, and should keep you smiling, with occasional outbursts of laughter.