Spectacularly crafted Whodunit! The kind of movie that would make J.B. Fletcher proud. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is a sleek modern interpretation of the a classic murder-mystery movie. He pays homage to Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries in terms of premise, but subverts what audiences expect out of a Christie mystery with his original expression, told through an outstanding screenplay complete with everything you want to get out of a Whodunit. You get it all: virtually everyone has a strong motive, plenty of deception, and a fortune at stake. Johnson displays a genuine love for Whodunits because he stays on brand by striking the proper tone and handling all the plot layers and characters with extreme care. The tone of this movie is one that is completely satirical yet never devolves into parody. Because it takes itself seriously, the moments of levity are placed with extreme precision. There are plenty of laugh out loud scenes in the movie, but the focus remains on solving the mystery of who killed Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Johnson’s satire on the obscenely wealthy class of Americans with their warped morality and ethics is highly entertaining, and will keep you amateur sleuthing along with Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). The central question in this Whodunit isn’t merely whodunit, but how could it not have been done. You just have to watch! Knives Out is a movie that did something boldly different with a classic premise and even the very act of spoofing a Whodunit. Johnson expertly crafted a highly clever plot that grows more fantastic with each moment of intrigue! You will want to watch it again to find all the clues you missed the first time around. Oh–in case you don’t recognize J.B. Fletcher, that is Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder, She Wrote, and she makes a cameo in this movie!
A detective and a trooper travel to a lush estate to interview the quirky relatives of a patriarch who died during his 85th birthday celebration.
The ability for a writer-director to master a cinematic story full of a labyrinth of layers, is truly a dying artform. In order for Johnson to have so successfully orchestrated such a spectacular whodunit, he had to study the source material films. Not source material in that this is based on a previous work–quite the opposite–it’s a wholly original story. But source material found in the hundreds of timeless film noir and murder-mystery films. Study the originals so closely that you know what tropes need to stay but also what elements can be re-interpreted for a modern audience. I can tell that every turning point in the main plot as well as every detail in the subplots was intentionally written and never left to afterthought. Johnson displays a mastery of the element of surprise. You may think you have this movie figured out, but you are likely wrong. Much like with the world’s largest, worse kept secret of the truth behind the murder in Murder on the Orient Express, it won’t take long for the secrets to be talked about at the water cooler in nearly every office.
These types of movies seem like relics of the past, the product of a long-since crumbled studio system, but Rian Johnson found a way to take the soul of what those films like The Maltese Falcon great, and channel it directly into a modern story that can provide a gripping mystery and touch on important social topics at the same time without it ever feeling preachy. Johnson never loses sight of the timeless grandeur of a serious Whodunit. While this movie takes itself seriously as a Whodunit, it is also hilariously funny. You wont’ find slapstick humor here, but well developed and fashioned drawing room humor coupled with brash candor. There are plenty of puns, one-liners, viciously funny insults the Golden Girls would be proud of, and even tell tale vomit. Some of Knives Out‘s humor is derived from the social commentary on the relationship between the 1%ers and the rest of the world. Furthermore, witty humor is born out of the relationships between individual characters and in the children/grandchildren and their grandfather. Humor that is grounded in conflict is always going to be more powerful than gag-based jokes.
Most of the performances are exemplary! Wish I could say all, but there are a few characters that are little more than furniture. If I have one gripe about the screenplay, it’s that there are 2-3 characters that do very little for the story, and pretty much just exist. If there are two standout performances in the movie, those would be Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas. Craig looked like he was having so much fun playing the southern aristocratic private investigator Benoit Blanc that I already want to see him reprise this character in another movie or even TV series! Not only did it look like he was having fun, but he remained committed to the character the entire time and never once faltered in any action or delivery. Maybe it isn’t a typical Oscar performance, but it was a command one never-the less. Just because he’s a caricature of a detective, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a stellar performance. Likewise, Armas’ Marta is a treasure to watch. Her sincerity, authenticity is unmatched by so many whom have played similar characters in the past. She completely transforms to play this nurse, and is strong, vulnerable, bold, and meek all at the same time. It takes tremendous talent to possess all those layers and never deliver one that isn’t precisely what is needed in that moment.
Now, I’d love to talk more about this movie, but I am afraid that if I go much further that I will tread close to spoiler territory. So I am going to do a little something different with this article. I am going to leave it here for now, but after the wide/general release of the film, then I can do more of a deep dive. Until then!
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!