‘Knives Out’ Is Old-Fashioned Fun, But It Could Have Been More
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a loving assembly of old-fashioned nostalgia. It’s the kind of film that reminds us that new and inventive is not the only thing we look for in cinema, but also the old and familiar, the school of competency that comforts us, like warm blankets in a winter mansion.
The plot is as new as the days of yore. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling writer who has made a fortune by cooking up mystery novels is found dead on the morning after his 85th birthday. Two cops and Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private detective hired by you-don’t-know-who arrive at the remote mansion to investigate the usual suspects that include the old man’s children and grandchildren, and also his house staff.
The fun element in the story is that no one seemed to have a clear motive to kill the wealthy patriarch, as nifty flashbacks inform us that the old man was dispensing shocking news to every possible heir at his birthday party.
You have Harlan’s eldest daughter, monochrome costumed Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis, sharp as cutting glass), and her philandering playboy husband Richard (Don Johnson). Then there is Walter (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s cantankerous middle-aged son who was in charge of running the publishing business. His daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette making the most of it) is a lifestyle guru evidently out of her depth and wealth. There are grandkids: spoiled grandson Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), the internet troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and about-to-be-college-dropout Megan (Katherine Langford). Hovering around this dysfunctional family concoction is Marta (Ana de Armas), an immigrant nurse who was devoted to the old man.
Any more unspooling of the plot would veer dangerously into spoiler territory so we’ll stop here. Writer-director Rian Johnson, an avid enthusiast of genre films keeps the momentum busy, along with non-stop red herrings.
The stunning collective of talents that the director has been able to pull in, post the success of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, do their best to embody the discordant dynasty, but they’re not as wonderfully exploited as the trailer had promised. They’re a lot of fun, playing off each other, but you are left wanting a little more.
The maximum time is spent on Benoit and Marta, who never pop up as fetching as the rest. Armas has an earnest presence, and she clocks the beating heart of the film with sweet sentimentality, unlike the fraudulent halo of the family she serves. Craig with his thick Southern drawl struggles to arrive at the charming gate, and we never fully comprehend what he is. At best we know he is not Bond, which in his current scheme is perhaps a win. A gleeful win.
The Thrombey villa is an old house with creaky stairs, secret passages, and rooms full of thick rugs, ominous paintings, and dead animals, and could have been a great forecourt for playing out the puzzle. But like its cast, the house doesn’t get utilized for atmosphere and enigma (this year’s Ready or Not managed to do this with disturbing dexterity). The crime itself when revealed in its full glory, confounds instead of helping the audience. After all, the real pleasure of murder mysteries is to make you feel that you could have solved it, the clues were all there, but the film trumped over your intelligence.
The current flavor of class politics finds a big place in the film. Marta’s nationality (she hails from a Latin American country) is a running joke in the proceedings, Trump is there too in banters, and finally in the battle of haves and have-nots, the winner warms us with a satisfying closing scene.
It’s quite clear that Johnson has wanted to make a film like this since his adolescence. This love for the genre is quite infectious. It spreads out in stylized frames and its rich ensemble, and you cheer for the mystery to round up well even if it doesn’t quite hit the bull’s eye.
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder).
(The Quint is now available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)