Knives Out is a gleefully silly game of Cluedo that revels in its absurdity, never taking itself seriously, asking us to play along in Rian Johnson’s funny whodunnit tale, Johnson’s love-letter to Agatha Christie. The central characters are brilliant, all sensationalised in this light-hearted, very funny take on the droll subject of death – and more pertinently, what happens when the will left is by anyone wealthy and with a family.
Such is the case here. The greed and selfishness between relatives that can occur if the reading of the will doesn’t go as expected sometimes destroy family ties, but this depressing aspect of the film is also depicted using the perfect tone. Comedic and whimsical, you’d be forgiven for forgetting this is about a man’s death.
Refreshingly, the mystery doesn’t take long to begin: In fact, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a well-known author and the rich patriarch of the family, is found dead in the opening scene. Soon his children have dollar signs in their eyes, suddenly eager to hear his will read, all expecting a cut of his vast portfolio. Despite celebrating his 85th birthday the night before, the will and nothing but the will is all anyone can now think about.
Before the will is scheduled to be read though, the matter of his death must be solved. The death of an 85 year-old family member seems like an internal affair, but a private detective is hired to investigate the death. He doesn’t know who hired him, but he received an envelope filled with cash and instructions to investigate the incident if Harlan died under certain circumstances. The case seems quite pointless, but when given a job, this private eye does not stop until the truth is found.
This private detective (Daniel Craig) soon becomes the centrepiece of the film. First two cops inform the family that Harlan’s death is to be investigated. The cops are asked who is sitting in the background, observing and not saying a word, and it is here that Craig makes his introduction.
His name is Benoit Blanc (The European name perhaps a wink to Hercule Poirot, a well-known detective from Agatha Christie’s books), and one couldn’t be blamed for expecting a French accent. But Craig sports a consistently hilarious southern accent that never actually sounds like any person I’ve heard talk, rendering his name and odd accent as two oddities amongst many others. His constantly amusing demeanour is magnetic, while the detective is a smart, curious man with a keen nose.
Appropriately this Sherlock Holmes has a very southern, charming and polite personality, which is helpful when interviewing an entire family about a fellow family member’s death. This also proves useful when he convinces Harlan’s carer, Marta (Ana de Armas), to join him. Marta could be his secret weapon as she physically cannot lie, obviously Blanc’s reason for asking her to join him as he strides around the house trying to put together the pieces.
Marta is the moral compass of the film; Ana de Armas’ depiction of this shy carer is extremely convincing, and her unsmiling face and shy behaviour impressively contrast against the big personalities of nearly every other character. She is especially stoic when the script comes to the Thrombey’s casual racism about what country she is from exactly, pointless rants about illegal versus legal immigration, and lets not forget to mention the way every family member condescendingly look down at her while simultaneously saying that they will look after her – given Harlan Thrombey is dead and her future now unclear.
It is obvious that Craig is having fun here. His accent wavers constantly but I don’t think anyone ever cared, as it’s simply another element of the film to smile at. This unpredictable, passive-aggressively intense detective couldn’t be a more of an against-type character for Craig, as he is the centre of not only the twisty mystery, but also the comedy. Put simply, he nails it. His body language, especially the way he moves with cigar in hand (or mouth), rounds off the perfect, spotlight-stealing performance.
If anything, he is too good, as the actors playing the family members really need to keep up to be as memorable, or as close to it as possible. The entire cast comes very close: Jamie Lee Curtis is particularly intense as the oldest daughter Linda, while Chris Evans plays against-type himself, looking very young as the ratbag son of Linda and her husband Richard (Don Johnson), who is probably the most forgettable actor here.
Fortunately though, since the incredible chemistry between the entire group is consistently evident, this doesn’t matter at all, plus he had some truly tough competition. Unsurprisingly, Michael Shannon is easily the best of the rest as Walt Thrombey: this character he is given to play is hilarious in his foolishness and ignorance, not to mention that beard, which couldn’t look more awkward, much like Walt’s himself. As a consequence, every time he is on screen, it is amusing. It’s a pity then that we don’t get to see enough of him, one small flaw which applies to other family members too.
This is almost the entire cast, barely any extras are needed as this almost entirely takes place inside Harlan’s giant house. It seems Rian Johnson has given his actors room to breathe life into the characters they have been given as it seems sure that much ad libbing took place here, and the ease in which they work together is obvious. The use of flashbacks is handled with ease as the puzzle is pieced together from mainly Blanc and Marta’s viewpoint. With a satisfying conclusion that isn’t too twist-filled when it easily could have been, Knives Out is hilarious, knee-slapping and almost tear inducing at times. This is the funniest, and most fun, film of the year. And it’s about a man’s death!
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