KNIVES OUT was a fun diversion for me from dealing further with a cold, snow-filled day. A mystery and comedy hybrid movie, its ensemble cast delivered both laughs and intrigue, greatly assisted by a well-written script and some interesting cinematography, specifically of the mansion and its surrounding property, where much of the story transpires. The opening scene displays the ominous house, itself a main character, with two large dogs running along the grounds. This set-up is akin to imagery on DARK SHADOWS, a supernatural soap opera TV show produced from 1966 to 1971. From this exterior shot, we’re drawn inside to abrupt, melodramatic activity of its occupants. The screen narrative’s overall tone is set.
August Canadian actor Christopher Plummer plays murder victim Harlan Thrombey, a wealthy, set-in-his-ways, old writer of mystery novels. Not surprisingly, his grown children and in-laws resent him yet rely on his financial largesse, resulting in a handful of suspects upon Thrombey’s sudden death.
The author’s mansion is filled with what looked to me like papier-mache caricature figures posed in assorted dramatic tableaux. Additionally, books and other memorabilia abound, including a web-like, circular hanging display of knives. I found the overall aesthetic harkening me back to the Mystery section of any number of dusty used bookstores, their shelves filled with faded, descriptive paperbacks from the 1960s and ’70s. Such places evoke for me feelings of wistfulness, gloom, intrigue, and amusement. This nuanced reaction is what the movie seems to pull for, with extra fun added in for good measure.
Cuban actress Ana de Armas plays the ingenue Marta Cabrera, Thrombey’s private nurse, who finds herself caught up in the middle of the family and crime drama.
She is believably earnest and honest compared to Thrombey’s daughter, son, in-laws, and grandchildren. These all chew the scenery to varying degrees, in part determined by on-screen time each is allowed. I had difficulty deciding who my favorite drama queen was amongst the lot. However, Toni Collette as a New-Age, health-minded daughter-in-law and Jamie Lee Curtis as a dry, sarcastic, bullish daughter stood out for me among the crowd. I laughed at each of the two’s delivery right away. Coming in as a close second to these would be K Callan, who portrays Thrombey’s very elderly mother Greatnana Wanetta. She hardly has any lines, but her shifting facial expressions indicating an inner vacancy to jadedness and back again are amusingly impressive, their timing perfect.
British actor Daniel Craig as private investigator Benoit Blanc goes over-the-top with his thick Southern accent throughout the movie. Clearly, he’s enjoying himself in the role, I’m sure a nice break from playing an over-pumped, testosterone-filled James Bond.
Writer and director Rian Johnson surely had a lot to draw from for inspiration, Agatha Christie being a main source, no doubt. He self-consciously includes clips of an old TV show (MURDER SHE WROTE) and some on-line/streaming mystery series to remind the audience this is very much a murder drama unfolding on screen. A reference to old visual technology (VHS) paired with an aged security guard (character actor M. Emmet Walsh, especially prominent in the 1970s and ’80s) who attempts to show others its usefulness among the gathering clues is a clever plot device. This is also yet another display of old media mixing with new, leading to a film that’s both recycled yet tweaked, updated. The sense of ongoing insider fun and humor, coupled with a steady honoring of an old genre, was not missed on me. Factoring all this in with ornate sets and much scene-stealing, the end result is a movie of thoughtful, high camp.
I found the plot sufficiently intriguing but admittedly secondary to all the colorful characters and snappy dialogue. The script deftly manages to balance between a very contemporary sensibility and an older one from the 1960s, early ’70s, and ’80s. For example, on one hand, there is much cell phone texting and the very current, thorny political discourse about Latinx immigrants is explored. On the other, the main setting, past media references, and long-established genre lend a very retro look and feel to the production overall.
The age-range of the characters in KNIVES OUT is about sixteen to over a hundred years old. Clearly, this movie tries to capture a wide audience as much as possible. How successful it is in actually doing so remains to be seen. My local theater has reported a “pretty good” box office draw for its first weekend. I’m not sure if there is enough there for Millennials to connect with, though one particularly mindful and well-educated associate of mine, aged twenty-seven, did enjoy the movie. In any case, I certainly did.