A whodunit of epic proportions that is a feast for the brain and the eyes
“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue.”
This is just one of the gems of dialogue that you’ll find in Rian Johnson’s epic whodunit murder mystery Knives Out. It’s the story of a family who all have something to gain from the death of their wealthy patriarch, but none of them will admit it. The colourful characters are played by an all-star cast that truly doesn’t disappoint, and when you combine it with the film’s amazing costumes and sets, Knives Out has set itself up as a worthy successor to the best film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s collective works.
The basic elevator pitch of Knives Out is this: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has just died by apparent suicide, on the night of his 85th birthday. Harlan was a prolific murder mystery author who had ammassed a substantial fortune from his books. Shortly after the funeral, the whole family, plus Harlan’s personal care nurse Marta (Ana de Armas in a knockout performance), are called to the Thrombey mansion to be interrogated by the local police and private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) so that any other means of death can be ruled out.
The rest of the family is just as eccentric as their patriarch. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) have a booming real estate business, but their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is the black sheep of the family. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) married into the family, but her husband is dead, leaving her to leech off of Harlan’s money through a yearly allowance. Harlan also pays for the education of Joni’s daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is the only member of the family who treats Marta as if she weren’t just part of the hired help. Son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company that publishes Harlan’s books, but is frustrated with Harlan’s unwillingness to let the adaptation rights be sold. All the key players have alibis for where they were during the murder, but all of them also have motive.
Between changed wills, family arguments about political beliefs and even a car chase, this movie continuously keeps you guessing. You might expect it to be a simple whodunit, with all the characters being interrogated and Blanc delivering the verdict at the end of the movie, but it is much more complicated. You’ll think you have an answer by the half-hour point, but a new element will be added to the mystery, making it increasingly impossible to solve until the last minute. I’m very glad that I ended up watching the movie at home with my partner, because we were able to pause it to debrief and share our predictions before going back to the movie to see if we were right. I am delighted to say that while both of us were right about elements of the finished mystery, neither of us had the complete solution figured out and we were pleasantly surprised at the reveal.
Johnson has proven himself to be a tour de force with an original story that he both directed and wrote. The script is clever in the way that it twists and turns and makes you question everything that you thought you knew about the characters five minutes ago. The script makes good use of the large house and estate that Harlan Thrombey owns, but the story is not confined to the house.
Johnson was highly criticized by Star Wars fans for his story choices in The Last Jedi but I quite liked what Johnson did with his stab at a Star Wars movie, especially mid-trilogy. It was a hard thing to do, and he’s clearly taken what he learned from his Star Wars outing and applied it to a movie that was so good I’m still processing it.
One of the elements that makes Knives Out so well done is the contemporary story elements in what feels like a classic murder mystery. De Armas has far more to do than you would think based off the trailers. Marta is from an immigrant family and risks everything by getting involved with the Thrombey family, who simultaneously offer to help her financially and keep her family safe while also threatening to reveal her mother as an undocumented immigrant. She is extremely likable as a main character, and you cannot help but be on her side from the minute she appears on screen.
Other standouts in the cast are plentiful, as this film is filled to the brim with genuine movie stars. Chris Evans as trust-fund outcast Ransom does an excellent job of being a jerk, turning it around, and then turning it all around again so he’s back to being a jerk. Jamie Lee Curtis has the best wardrobe of the movie by far, and is also the most engaging member of the Thrombey family as the new leader of the family once Harlan dies.
It’s also worth noting how impeccably all of the characters are dressed. The colour palette of this movie is incredible, and the costumes complement it perfectly. Each character gets their own distinctive style with pieces that reflect it. My favourite costume pieces include everything that Jamie Lee Curtis wears, Marta’s scarf, the gaudy ensemble that Harlan’s mother wears, and of course Chris Evans’ fisherman’s sweater – it simultaneously makes him look like a dad while highlighting his Captain America physique. It’s honestly incredible. I don’t know how they did it.
Even if you’re not a fan of murder mysteries (which I’m usually not), I can guarantee you’ll love Knives Out. The script is fun and clever, and the stakes are always just high enough to make you rethink what you thought you knew about the movie, without feeling like they’re pushing the boundaries of what it’s trying to be. It’s a good thing that Johnson has already said he’s writing a sequel, because this film has rightly earned him a new legion of fans, ones that are hungry for whatever mystery Benoit Blanc will be solving next.