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.
5 thoughts on “Movie Review (KNIVES OUT)”
Wow! Your critique had me checking out two trailers to see what was going on. First, I noticed familiar faces and spent time figuring out who they were. The whole whodunit suspense-filled sense from the music down to the expressions on the faces of the characters, plus the eeriness of the setting made me wish it was on YouTube, so I could watch it. I love your description of the mystery section of a dusty used bookstore, which reminded me of our public library when I was very young and smoking was allowed. My youngest son has a fondness for musty basements that remind him of that old library. “Dark Shadows”, my oldest sister’s favorite show. She was never quick on her feet, but when she needed to get home to watch that show, you better not have been her way. Your descriptions of the characters brought a smile to my face. ” Dry, sarcastic, bullish daughter” and “inner vacancy to jadedness and back again” made me laugh out loud. This seems like a really fun movie to go to, certainly, if it was anything like “Murder She Wrote”, which I loved. Millenial was the word I needed to look up. My youngest would be the Millenial, my oldest two – Generation X, and I, of course, would be a Baby Boomer. This was such fun to read. Thank you!
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I’m glad you enjoyed reading my review of KNIVES OUT. It really is a fun movie, which clearly gives hat tips to the Mystery genre, such as the show MURDER, SHE WROTE. The last time I had this much fun watching a Who-Done-It movie was Agatha Christie’s THE MIRROR CRACK’D (1980), starring Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, and Angela Lansbury (a few years before she starred in M.S.W.) among others. Similar to K.O., it had a lot of colorful campiness to it. If you haven’t seen that earlier film, I recommend it, especially because of the rivalry between Taylor’s and Novak’s characters. They ham it up, quite dramatically throwing some great one-liners at each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if THE MIRROR… is available on YouTube.
Your reminiscing is a pleasure to read about. I’m glad my writing evoked fond personal memories for you.
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Well Knives Out sounds like a hoot! I really enjoyed your review–you have a deftness of evoking the feel of a film and the characters without giving away too much of the plot. As someone who’s a late-goer to new release films, I appreciate that. I’ll look forward to seeing this one. I’m a closet murder-mystery obsessive (but only good ones…there’s an extraordinary amount of junky ones out there). I collected Agatha Christie novels starting when I was in grade 5 and eventually read and owned all of them, so I’m a fan. Though I’m often disappointed in screen versions of her work, so haven’t watched many. Perhaps I’ll try The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side–that was one of my favorites of hers (I was partial to Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence over the more popular Hercule Poirot). I did greatly enjoy Murder She Wrote–mostly because I quite like Angela Lansbury (to whom I was introduced through the musical Mame when I was a kid). Anyway, thumbs-up on your review! Makes me want to dredge up old episodes of Dark Shadows (which scared me too much to watch when I was younger!)
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I suspect you’ll enjoy KNIVES OUT, which balances comedy and mystery quite nicely in such a rare way, as far as I’ve seen.