By Ambar Chatterjee
'Rian Johnson's re-imagining of the whodunit thriller is engaging in content, performances and mesmerizing in beauty'
Cast: Daniel Craig, Ana De Armas, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Christopher Plummer.
Director: Rian Johnson
Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is the 85-year old patriarch of the Thrombey family. He has created The Thrombey Legacy based on the fact that he is a prolific and celebrated crime fiction writer and owns a flourishing publishing company. His family members run his businesses and household as Harlan concentrates on turning over two novels a year that not only earn him a huge fortune but also let his family members enjoy a life of wealth and excess. Most of his family members are not what they seem. Thrombey is particularly close to his caregiver Marta (Ana De Armas) who not only has a kind heart but is the only true friend that Harlan has. After celebrating his 85th birthday, Harlan is found with his throat slit the following day by his maid. It looks like a clear case of suicide but things take an interesting turn when a detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an unknown person to investigate the death.
The whodunit thriller has been a genre that has been done to death in movies (Murder on the Orient Express, Clue, Gosford Park) and series (Poirot, Sherlock, Elementary). There is very little to it that hasn't been tried before and for an avid viewer of the genre like me, the genre has just started to get repetitive and a tad bit too dependent on literature. It is in this aspect that Knives Out scores heavily. It has been marketed as a revitalization of the whodunit thriller genre and it is exactly that. In trying to re-imagine a much-loved genre, the chances of going overboard or falling short was always a risk for writer-director Rian Johnson. Thankfully, Johnson takes all that we love about the genre and adds some interesting new twists and turns to it, turning it on its head and giving us a film that is endlessly entertaining and engrossing even though it doesn't follow the traditional footings of the genre.
The film, original script by Johnson is relentless from the get-go. We see the police interview the whole family trying to learn of any inconsistencies in their initial statements. It is also the part where we are introduced to the whole cast of characters including Benoit Blanc who is sitting behind the interviewers as a silent observer occasional pressing key on the piano hinting at something that is not made clear. As the members are being interviewed, we are constantly getting two versions of their stories. One: What they are spelling out to the interviewers. Two: What happened in the event in question. This was an interesting departure from how the whodunit genre approaches these kinds of situations. The idea is always to hide as much as possible to generate tension and questions. In Knives Out, Rian Johnson incites thrills and inquisition by showing us things that practically solve the mystery but making us wonder if it was so simple than what is the rest of the film about. Therein lie the charm and intrigue of the film.
The star-studded cast of the film is superlative in its performances. Every cast member disappears behind the character that they essay and that proves to be one of the greatest strengths of the film. Christopher Plummer plays the patriarch with an indelible charm and an uncanny sense of humor. Even in the face of imminent death, he doesn't lose his sense of humor. It is also in this scene that we get a taste of why he is such a prolific crime fiction writer as he guides a cast member on how to evade capture from by the law for a crime that he/she didn't consciously commit. He isn't there for too long but is charismatic enough to leave an impression on the whole film. Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, True Lies) plays his daughter with gusto. She is introduced as a self-made businesswoman but as the film progresses we see a facet of her that is a far cry from the confident and authoritative character that she starts off as. Curtis is terrific in the role that demanded a lot of character.
I love Michael Shannon and the over the top "crazy" that he brings out when you least expect him to. Here he plays the youngest son of Harlan and also the one with the biggest motive to murder the man. His sudden outbursts in certain scenes against his family members are one of the highlights of his act. It is very difficult to put a finger on whether his character is a good man or not but he does hold on to his demeanor making his character mysterious. Chris Evans makes an appearance quite late in the film and he is introduced as the black sheep of the family who was cut out of the family's fortunes by Harlan. It is easy to take him as the bad guy but there are things that he does which makes us question his actual intentions. This is what makes his character interesting. Evans brings his trademark charm to the character that increases its likeability. Toni Collette is wickedly fun.
The two most important characters in the film are played by Daniel Craig and Ana De Armas. While Craig is the detective who is en-tasked with finding out if Harlan's suicide was for real, Ana De Armas plays the caregiver who is involved in the whole mystery in more ways than one. She is also suffering from a unique physical condition that makes her regurgitate every time she tells a lie. The scenes that the two share are brimming with energy, intrigue and a subtle undercurrent of comedy. Craig's character carries an overwhelming accent that is hard to ignore but even with that, he brings out an interesting rendition of the character that is commanding. Ana De Armas has proved time and again that she is a talented actress who can pull off characters of different kinds and she proves her might yet again here playing a character that has many layers to it and is driven by a lot of emotional baggage that is building up inside her. It wasn't an easy character to portray but she does an extremely good job with it.
In addition to all the quality in terms of story, thrills, drama, and performances, Knives Out is an exquisitely pretty film. Be it picturesque outdoors, the highly detailed interiors or how the characters are viewed in keeping with the sequence that they are a part of. Every frame is captured with the kind of beauty that makes this film worthy of a watch just to appreciate how gorgeous it is. Add to that some razor-sharp editing and you have a film that is nearly pitch-perfect in terms of technicalities. Knives Out, in many sequences, reminded me of Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express that to date remains one of the seminal masterpieces of whodunit thrillers. It was easily one of the most gorgeously shot and edited films of that era and this film comes mighty close to that in terms of visual splendor.
Knives Out is a must-watch for the fans of the genre. It will also be highly enjoyable for anyone who appreciates good films. It is a film that ripe with thrills, drama, comedy and fantastic performances. If that was not enough, you could just feast your eyes on the frames dripping with rich cinematic beauty and curious old school charm. Knives Out is a must-watch.