Every so often, there is that standout film. It could be for any reason; the cinematography, the script, the performance itself, but for whatever reason, it remains in your mind. This series looks at the films that have stayed with me, and I like to think about.
Knives Out, a murder mystery by Rian Johnson
Running Time: 2h 10m
SPOILERS WARNING!!!! If you haven’t yet seen this and don’t want to spoil your virgin eyes, then leave this right now and go watch it! Otherwise …
As soon as I saw the trailer, I knew that I was going to enjoy this film. And what was there not to enjoy? A kooky house filled with random gothic and macabre objects, an all-star cast playing against type, a murder mystery and Daniel Craig using a Southern American dialect!
Murder mysteries are amazing. There’s nothing better than spending an average of two hours trying to figure out who the antagonist is before the fictional detective, well, that’s what I would like to think. Or better still, I know what’s happening ahead of the detective and wait to see how they unravel it.
In this film I get the delight of both, and what a pleasure it is. The opening scene is of the house itself, the house in where the murder happened, the house that becomes sort of a character as we delve into this bizarre wonderland. As we enter inside, we find that it is no ordinary mansion. It is filled with what appears to be memorabilia from books and dark, gothic objects, particularly skulls, depicting “Memento Mori”, a Latin term which roughly translates as “Remember you are mortal”.
As the camera flows through the house, it catches up with Fran (Edi Patterson), who has a breakfast tray, holding a large mug. In bold, red, capitals it reads: ‘MY HOUSE, MY RULES, MY COFFEE. ’ What she sees next makes her almost drop the tray, and then the camera pans to a dead man with his throat slit.
The victim is the patriarch of this film. He is Harlan Thrombey played by Christopher Plummer, a successful fictional crime writer, and has managed to distance himself from his family while celebrating his 85th birthday. Later that night he dies. In the aftermath of his demise, the police and a peculiar gentleman arrive to ‘interview’ the family members, who each answer the questions to save face, however, their interview is interspersed with the truth.
Let’s have a look at the family members of Harlan Thrombey.
Walt is Harlan’s son played by Michael Shannon. He manages the publishing company on behalf of his father, who was writing successful mystery novels, and keen to move the company forward into film and television. He and his wife, Donna (Riki Lindholme), an uptight and outwardly nervous woman, have a politically active son named Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Jacob is shown never without his phone, to which the other family members share their ideas of what he does with it.
Linda is Harlan’s daughter, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. She is an ambitious and successful business-woman in her own right, well after a leg up from her father.
Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) is Linda’s husband, who has a secret that he would rather his wife didn’t know about.
Linda and Richard have a son named Hugh (Chris Evans), but the family go by his middle name Ransom. He is very spoiled, and he is not used to not getting things his own way. He is not popular among the other family members, but Harlan has a soft spot for him.
Joni (Toni Collette) is the widow of Harlan’s deceased son, Neil. She is an Instagram influencer and has her own skincare range, Flam, but she hasn’t moved on from her dead husband’s family who clearly despise her, because she enjoys that Harlan pays for her daughter Meg’s school fees, among other benefits. She reminded me of a ‘super-groupie’ from the 70’s.
Lastly, there is Harlan’s mother, Great Nana Wanette (K Callan), she doesn’t speak much, and it is probably because the other family members are so wrapped up in themselves, that she is constantly dismissed. Great-Nana seems to mistake everyone for Ransom. It is really subtle, but she is at the heart of the investigation.
Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is a Private Detective. He recently appeared in the New Yorker magazine, of which most of the family members have stated they have read (not Joni though, she just read the headline). He received an envelope filled with cash and a note from an anonymous person to try and find the killer.
He describes it as “… a weird case from the start. A case with a hole in the centre. A doughnut”.
Craig based Benoit Blanc’s speech style on Southern historian Shelby Foote. It is because of his dialect that it appears that the family look down on him, and despite of the discrimination, it is he that understands the human condition all too well.
Each family member, apart from Ransom (although he does later) and Great Nana, are interviewed in the library. A vast room filled with gothic art and books. They sit to the side of a chair crowned with knives while being interviewed by Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). Every so often a piano note is played by Blanc, which incites Lieutenant Elliot to get back on track and question the timeline.
What I find amazing here is the brilliant use of what I call ‘The Rashomon Effect’. The retelling of a situation from more than one perspective. It is a closed mystery at the moment, so we, the audience, have gained privileged information.
The one thing that they are all consistent with is the fact that they don’t know or haven’t even bothered to inquire about Marta’s heritage, each stating a different South American country: Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil. This was made clear both in interviews and flashbacks.
So far so great! Enter Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), mentioned above. She was Harlan’s personal nurse and confidant. It is interesting that Blanc holds a gaze on Marta’s shoes upon first meeting. He also knows something about her that maybe he shouldn’t on first meeting, and that is her tendency to be sick if she tells a lie or obscures the truth. Once the self-serving lies of the family members have been established by discussing this with Marta, Blanc then asks her to recount her version of events on that fateful night. He flips a coin and …
… just like that the film flips! I must note that Marta is the first person to sit directly in front of the ‘Throne of Knives’. Now we see what really happened: the party, the game of Go, the medication mix-up, and the cover-up that Harlan proposes to ensure that Marta’s mother’s illegal alien status does not come to light.
At the end of Marta’s testimony, does the coin land in Benoit Blanc’s hand. The investigation ensues, however, Blanc asks Marta to assist him. Yet, we now wonder how she will get away with it. The closed mystery has now become a reverse whodunit! We know the facts now, don’t we?
The Will Reading
Ransom has arrived for the will reading, and everyone points out that he wasn’t even at the funeral. We understand completely why he is the unpopular member of the Thrombeys. Mr Alan Stevens (Frank Oz), the legal executor has arrived to read the will. I love the way that the camera focuses on each family member for each asset: Linda and Richard for the house, which makes sense as Linda is in the property business. Walt and Donna eagerly await their name to be called in respect of the publishing house and all rights of his father’s books. Joni and Meg are hanging on for the cash sum. Well, nope, Marta inherits everything. This arouses outrage from the family, who show their true colours, much to ours and Ransom’s satisfaction. In order to get away from everyone’s vitriol, Ransom offers Marta a way out in his car, and she accepts.
The pace quickens now that Ransom and Marta are together. What is memorable is when Ransom says that he thought he was the only one who ever beat Harlan at Go. Harlan was never able to beat Marta at Go, because he was playing to win, and she wanted to create pretty patterns. This game signifies a lot about the characters that we know play it with Harlan.
This will set up the final confrontation, showing that she is smarter than Ransom.
A further observation about Ransom and games, was that during the will-reading, he was shown to be smirking while playing with a chessboard. He is stacking the King onto the Rook, which resembles a castle (Do you know the rhyme: ‘I’m the King of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal!’). At first glance, it would be a throw-away gesture, but makes all the difference upon a further viewing.
It is because of the reference to such games, that it can be noticed during this period after the will-reading, that certain moves are being made. A wonderful red-herring by way of Fran, whose cousin worked at the Coroner’s office, blackmailing Marta in respect of the medication mix-up.
Back at the House
Once back at the house, there is soon some clarity on what the hell is going on here. Daniel Craig’s monologue was fantastic! Only to find out later that he memorised the last 30 pages of the script, I was dumbfounded.
Marta, now wise of the manipulation by Ransom, plays her piece, and she plays it very well. Ensuring that the murderer and manipulator gets his just reward, punishment.
And of course, the reward of the throwaway comment of Harlan in an earlier scene, when he says that his grandson Ransom wouldn’t be able to tell a prop knife from a real one.
I particularly enjoyed the allusions to other detectives and crime fiction writers and all of the tropes that come along with it. I picked up on Agatha Christie, to whom this film is heavily tributed. Harlan Thrombey died on his 85th birthday, as did the prolific writer, Christie.
Harlan Thrombey’s character was based on a popular children’s book series called Choose Your Own Adventure. One of those books was called ‘Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?’, and the plot like the film centres on the demise of a wealthy man whose family are all potential suspects.
It has been said that Rian Johnson’s personal inspirations for this film were:
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
Death on the Nile (1978)
The Last of Sheila (1973)
Gosford Park (2001)
The Mirror Crack’d (1980)
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
The Private Eyes (1980).
If you haven’t seen any of the films mentioned , I would very much encourage you to do so. Only recently I watched Gosford Park for the first time, and I’m glad that I did!
What did you think of Knives Out? I’d be interested to know, so please leave a comment below!