Knives Out is Neither Dull nor Sharp

Knives Out (2019)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 130 minutes, PG-13.

Da da da dum, dum, dum
Nearly everything about the murder mystery/comedy Knives Out is good. Not much is exceptional. In some ways it’s a perfect end of the year movie. It moves along crisply enough to keep your interest, it won’t tax your brain, and it won’t add stress to your life during the holiday season. In essence, it’s a big ball of tinsel whose sparkle you’ll enjoy, then you’ll toss it away and forget about it.

A good way to think about Knives Out is to imagine a cross between Agatha Christie and The Adams Family. Famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey has just celebrated his 85th birthday, though “endured” is probably a better word, given that the event was attended by his extended family. To call that group toxic scarcely does it justice. There is imperious daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson); widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a sort of lifestyle coach, though she basically sucks up to family members who can’t stand her, and cashes Harlan’s checks to pay the tuition for the elite college her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) attends; youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), who fancies himself a publisher though his father’s books are the only titles in his empire; Walt’s awful family; and oily, amoral grandson Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) whom everyone wishes to strangle. To round out a truly awful brood, Harlan’s ancient mother, Wanetta (K Callan) sits vegetative and mute by a window. The only positive presence in Harlan’s life is his immigrant nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) who is so honest she throws up whenever she even tries to tell a lie.

Hugh is the one most would wish to come into misfortune, but it’s Harlan who is found in a pool of blood the next morning. It looks like a close-the-books suicide but, as in nearly all mysteries, there’s a suspicious private detective who thinks otherwise. In this case, it is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who suspects foul play, though Detective Lt. Eliot (Lakeith Stanfield) is sure he’s wrong. (Isn’t that a dead tip-off in all such films?) Eliot’s bemused sidekicks are content to watch it all play out, and one of them is such a huge fan of Harlan’s mysteries that he sees parallels between the investigation and plots from Thrombey’s books–though he usually draws the wrong conclusions.

What we have is a classic mystery ensemble piece in which a whodunit, dark comedy, and caper collide. Like Hercule Poirot, Blanc’s initial suspect list contains everyone (except Marta). The film is a diverting romp that feeds upon red herrings, is peppered with acidic remarks, and is salted with overly dramatic acting. Everyone gets to chew some scenery and there’s plenty for all diners inside Harlan’s eccentric mansion. Christopher Plummer is always a delight and he in perhaps the most convincing character in the film, though it’s really Daniel Craig’s star turn. Craig is arresting behind his icy blue eyes, though his affected Southern accent comes and goes in authenticity. Ana de Armas is cute and alluring, but I could have done without vomiting as a major character trait. If I had to pick another actor other than Plummer who most stayed in character, it would be Jamie Lee Curtis. She is so tart and fierce that she looks as if she is constantly on the edge of tearing out someone’s liver.

Because this is an actor’s movie, it’s hardly surprising that a whole host of others wanted a piece of it. The cast includes bit parts and cameos from folks such as Edi Patterson, Riki Lindholme, Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, and M. Emmet Walsh. Who can blame them for wanting in? One gets the sense that Director Rian Johnson encouraged his actors to improvise. Why not? I’m sure Rian Johnson, who also wrote the script, knew he wasn’t making Lawrence of Arabia. I give him credit for a diverting film that’s not really meant to become a film studies classic. The moment one begins to dissect this film, the fun goes out of it. Sit back, enjoy, and park your brain in neutral.

Rob Weir

Note: Knives Out was filmed in Massachusetts, especially at Ames Mansion in Easton. There is also an “undisclosed” location that’s in private hands and wishes to avoid publicity. I highly suspect, though, that Ventfort Hall in Lenox is that location.


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