Toronto 2019: ‘Knives Out’ Is an A-List Agatha Christie Mystery A La Mode
Agatha Christie didn’t invent the whodunnit, that literary subgenre featuring unexpected corpses, gaggles of suspects, eccentric supersleuths and parlor-room denouements. She did a lot to embed it in the popular imagination, however, and the grande dame’s spirit is all over Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s ingenious spin on her signature deductive-detective story. Or rather, the esprit de corps of those ’60s and ’70s takes on her work, when it was common practice to watch a who’s who cast dress up in period finery and challenge audiences to guess the culprit(s) before the climax. The Looper writer-director has clearly boned up on vintage cinema du homicidal Orient expresses and crack’d mirrors, and delivered something that’s part reverent homage, part self-aware stab at playing around with the mustiest of crime fiction tropes. It’s an A-list Agatha Christie mystery à la mode in everything but name. And it’s a ridiculous amount of fun.
A murder has been committed at a mansion. The victim is one Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), bestselling author of — what else? — classic whodunnits. He’s been found in his writing room, prone on his couch, the day after his 85th birthday party. A dagger lies on the floor. His throat has been slit. The suspects are, naturally, numerous. There is his daughter Lynda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul, and her ne’er-do-well husband, Richard (Don Johnson). There is his son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs his lucrative publishing company, and Walt’s mousy wife (Riki Lindhome) and “alt-right troll” son (It‘s Jaeden Martell). There is his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a daffy lifestyle guru, and her college-age daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). And there is Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), the dictionary definition of an entitled douchebag.
Everyone has their reasons for wanting the famous paterfamilias dead. Everyone endures endless questions from the police lieutenant (Lakeith Stanfield) assigned to the case. And there are two outliers from the family that are involved with the proceedings as well. One is Marta (Blade Runner 2049‘s Ana de Armas, fully coming into her own here), Harlan’s nurse and confidant. She’s the daughter of a South American immigrant — it’s a testament to the Thornton clan’s blithe one-percenter ignorance and a running joke that everyone names a different country of origin when her name comes up. She has a nagging tendency to vomit whenever she attempts to lie. And she was one of the last people to see her the old man alive.
The second square peg, that odd-man-out who keeps plinking a piano key whenever somebody gives an answer that seems out of sorts? That’s Benoit Blanc, renowned private investigator (“I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you!” one character squeals — Johnson’s script is rife with such perfectly pithy one-liners). He’s been hired by parties unknown to look into the case, a challenge he clearly relishes. And as played by Daniel Craig with a gumbo-thick Southern accent and quirks galore, he’s the film’s Poirot by way of Lake Pontchartrain, the dapper observer who keeps just-one-last-thing–ing the family members after every grudge, argument and possible motive is revealed. We are not fans of the industry trend that demands everything must now be franchised into oblivion. We would happily spend many more hours in the Blanciverse. (Bond who?)
So Benoit and his partners in crimesolving go sniffing about every hidden nook and secret-door cranny of the Thornton estate (“This guy practically lives in a Clue board”), trying to suss out who, in fact, done it. From there, Johnson runs his stars through their murder-mystery-weekend paces like an expert, sticking to the genre’s rules when it suits him and bending them when need be. It’s not a spoiler to say that things are not what they seem, because they never are in these types of things — that’s part of the appeal. Nor is it giving anything away to say that things get seriously convoluted, logic occasionally lets a convenient plot twist take the wheel and every famous face gets a chance to try out their best Colonel-Mustard-in-the-study expression. It might be construed as a slip of the tongue to say that Craig bursting into a rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” while sitting in a car is possibly the most sublime moment of 2019, so apologies for that. (Please address all complaints to Peter Travers at Rolling Stone dot com.)
It’s a perfectly on-brand idiosyncratic move for the filmmaker, having been blessed with the clout to do anything he wants after The Last Jedi, to try resurrecting a film genre that’s largely been left to gather dust. But whether you’ve devoured every Ellery Queen novel or have merely spent a few lazy afternoons watching Murder, She Wrote reruns — big up the Jessica Fletcher shout-out! — you probably know the whodunnit’s ins and outs, and Johnson is clearly having a blast conforming to and/or thwarting narrative expectations.
He’s also got a few IRL things on his mind as well, however. Several characters express the sort of opinions that wouldn’t be out of place on Fox and Friends. Others mouth well-intentioned “progressive” platitudes that are equally as deplorable. Immigration is a constant topic of heated discussions, a basis for threats and is embedded in the escapism in a way that goes deeper than just namedropping current affairs. Class has been a constant in murder mysteries since the form’s early days, and Knives Out uses the disparity between the haves and have-nots, the folks to the manor born and those forced to smile politely at rich people’s foibles and follies, to deftly score points. You’re having such a gas watching Johnson and his stars do their Agatha Christie cosplay that you might not even register that the movie has left a thousand cuts in its wake.
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