I’ve been a sucker for mysteries for quite some time, specifically the trappings of noir. But, lately I’ve been really getting into a different type of mystery fiction, one that I had kind of dismissed when I was younger. And that’s the whodunnit, the parlor room mystery that was perfected by Agatha Christie. My wife’s grandfather is an enormous Christie fan, and he has helped get me into the subgenre. So, you can imagine my delight when I learned that one of my favorite working filmmakers, Rian Johnson, was going to be taking a break from a shocking amount of Star Wars movies to make a star-studded whodunnit featuring Daniel Craig as a ridiculous southern detective. As soon as I heard about Knives Out I was excited, and continued to become even more so as each new development came out. It seemed like a film completely designed for me, and I started to have a sneaking suspicion that this film was going to end up as my favorite film of the year, unless it just ended up completely missing the potential that it seemed to have. And, to my utter delight, it managed to live up to all of that potential, and if anything, exceed it. This is a completely wonderful film, easily one of the most entertaining I’ve seen all year, and shockingly with a whole lot more to say than I was anticipating.
The film follows the investigation of the death of a prominent mystery writer named Harlan Thrombey. On the night of his 85th birthday he seemingly committed suicide by slitting his own throat, and the family have all come together for the funeral. But, they also find that the police have come back with a renowned private investigator named Benoit Blanc, who has been hired by someone to investigate Harlan’s death. He begins interviewing the various family members, and airing some of their dirty laundry. We have Harlan’s real estate mogul daughter Linda and her philandering husband Richard with their trust fund brat son Ransom, his flighty daughter-in-law Joni and her activist daughter Meg, his sad son Walt and his racist wife and son Donna and Jacob, along with his personal nurse Marta. We slowly start to pick up the various secrets that these family members are hiding, and the idea that Harlan was trying to stop financially supporting them all, before we learn something shocking. Harlan wasn’t actually murdered. He killed himself after Marta accidentally gave him a massive dose of morphine, trying to cover up the accidental murder so that she wouldn’t be arrested, and then concocting an alibi to keep her safe. But, Marta doesn’t want to tell Blanc of the police about this, which becomes increasingly difficult when Blanc seems to single Marta out, making her his assistant for the investigation.
Marta does her best to hide the truth from Blanc, which weirdly does seem pretty easy. But, things get infinity more difficult when it becomes time to read the will. And, to everyone’s complete shock, Harlan had changed the will to cut all of his family members out of it, giving absolutely everything to Marta. The family fly into a rage at this point, and Marta is forced to flee from the family. But, she gets saved by Ransom, who manages to exploit an inability of Marta’s to lie without throwing up to get her to tell him everything that’s going on. Ransom swears that he will help Marta, and she continues trying to trick Blanc. Which gets even more difficult when it becomes clear that someone is attempting to blackmail her with the toxicology report, which would show the overdose. Marta ends up discovering that she’s being blackmailed by Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper, who she finds overdosing on morphine. She attempts to save Fran, and is picked up by Blanc, who has had everything explained to him by Ransom. He and Marta then return to the home, where she will confess what happened, until Blanc is finally able to piece everything together after seeing the toxicology report. Because there was no extra morphine in Harlan’s system. It turns out that before Marta gave him the wrong dose Ransom switched the labels of the medication, because he’d learned that he was being written out of the will. So, when Marta gave the wrong doses she actually gave the correct doses, meaning Harlan killed himself for nothing. But, Ransom does confess to the crime, getting himself arrested. Marta then becomes the sole owner of the Thromby estate, as Benoit Blanc heads off to solve more mysteries.
Going into this film, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in store for, and was quite excited. And, I was wonderfully excited when the movie so quickly swerved from my expectations. When the truth about Harlan’s death was revealed within the first twenty minutes I had no idea what the movie was actually going to be, unless it became Marta out-thinking a bumbling Blanc, which would have been fun too. But, it morphed into something much crazier, a mystery within a mystery full of outlandishly fun performances, all coming together to make a film that certainly felt very much like the works of Christie, while also becoming its own animal. And I loved every moment of it. This is a thoroughly entertaining film, with a razor-sharp script, a slew of phenomenal performances, an amazing production design that keeps a hilariously weird setting for us, and some shockingly cutting societal commentary. I would love to see Johnson make further adventures of Benoit Blanc, the absurd caricature that Daniel Craig is performing, who was certainly positioned as the protagonist of this film. But I was wonderfully charmed to find that the real protagonist of the film ended up being Marta, played beautifully by Ana de Armas in a performance that has guaranteed my interest in essentially anything she will be in from here on out. Everyone in the film is fantastic, bringing these insane characters to life while somehow perfectly walking the line of being realistic people and cartoon characters, just a perfect example of everything wrong with the wealthy today.
I went into this film expecting a fun mystery full of twists. And, I received that, in spades. but, what i wasn’t anticipating was a film about how terrible the wealthy is, and how quickly they will destroy someone who threatens their money. Throughout the first half of the money we recognize that every member of the Thromby family, Harlan notwithstanding, are the absolute worst. They’re spoiled idiots who have done nothing in their lives that their father didn’t give to them, funding their exploits and shenanigans, letting them lead lives of luxury. But, as soon as we learn that Harlan has decided to cut his family dry, to make them actually work and create for a living, only to give his money to the only decent person he knows, they instantly drop any pretense of being charming weirdos, and become hateful, vindictive children. They go through the whole movie pretending that Marta is “family” to them, saying they’ll take care of her after Harlan’s death. But, when she potentially gets their money she’s suddenly some foreign interloper, a harlot who has warped Harlan’s mind and is trying to steal from them. Ransom’s entire plan was to literally kill his grandfather and frame the old man’s only friend for the crime, all because someone other than he was getting a lot of money. They’re psychopaths, and all of their ugliness is put on full display, showing that even the most “liberal” among them are just putting on an act, and will immediately switch over to money-grubbing hatred the second they have to. And, it becomes so much more satisfying as we see Marta the good-natured nurse and Benoit Blanc the self-made eccentric shatter their lives.
Knives Out was written and directed by Rian Johnson and released by Lionsgate, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk