The story of Knives Out is a deceptively simple one. The day after the 85th birthday party of acclaimed crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), he is found as dead as a doornail in a room with only one door and no windows.
The suspects are his dysfunctional family members: daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), Thrombey’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) who controls his estate, and his hippy-dippy wife Joni (Toni Collette). Then there’s also the question of Harlan’s grandson Ransome (Chris Evans), whose absence speaks louder than anyone else’s presence. At the centre of it all is Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s dutiful nurse and companion, who was the last person to see Harlan alive, and who discovered his body.
In comes Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a detective employed by a mysterious client who has tasked him with getting to the bottom of things. Secrets and family shame are uncovered one by one as Blanc works his way through the list of suspects to find Harlan’s murderer.
Director Rian Johnson hasn’t made things easy for himself in the past few years. After working on The Last Jedi — one of the most anticipated sci-fi movies recently, if not of all time — he started work on Knives Out, a modern take on the classic whodunnit genre.
This movie has all the makings of a hit: a star-studded cast that makes the mind boggle, an intricate plot that centres on the nurse (in lieu of a butler), and a pay-off at the end that is simultaneously satisfying and jaw-dropping.
The fact that most of the action takes place in a wondrously over-the-top house full of gothic architectural flourishes is the cherry on top of this murder sundae. The house is a reflection of the dark, mysterious corners of its owner’s mind, while also harking back to the hardboiled detective stories of yore. I particularly liked the detail of the dollhouse of death in the library, which was presumably used by Harlan to plot out his own books.
This gives everything a rather intimate feel, despite the secrets the house is hiding in its numerous corridors, and makes this movie feel more like a play. It speaks of some shrewd artistic direction from Johnson, and is far, far away from the galaxy most mainstream audiences associate with him.
That said, the story does sag a bit in places, and at times the audience is taken on such a labyrinthine path through the motives of all the suspects that it’s easy to lose track of things. There are also the inevitable plot loopholes, but they are mercifully minimised here. Johnson — who also wrote the script — has done his homework and worked his way through the story, and it shows.
With a cast that features the current 007 himself as the detective, it was apparent right from the beginning that the movie would be full of great performances. Toni Collette and Jamie Lee Curtis in particular use the wealth of their acting experience in some suspenseful scenes.
And for those who were afraid that Evans wouldn’t be able to shake off the spectre of Steve Rogers, fear not, for he is back to form here as a suspiciously good-looking rogue of a playboy. Unfortunately the same cannot really be said of Craig, whose dodgy southern accent was more distracting and over-the-top than convincing, but that is a minor quibble in the whole scheme of things.
Knives Out is both an homage and a parody of noir and detective movies, and on both those counts, it’s mostly successful. While the movie isn’t entirely without its faults, it’s a rollicking rollercoaster of a ride and promises to keep viewers on the edge of their seat as they unravel the mystery along with Blanc.
Score: 4.5/5 stars
Knives Out opens in cinemas 27 November, 2019 (Singapore, Philippines).