Saturday 4 January 2020

Movie Review: Knives Out (2019)

A whodunnit crime mystery spiced with humour, Knives Out features an ensemble cast having fun in a convoluted Clue-like milieu.

In Massachusetts, celebrated and wealthy crime mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide, after the family had gathered at his mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. Police detectives interrogate the family members, while private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is anonymously hired to investigate whether a murder was committed.

Potential motives for murder are soon revealed. Harlan was about to expose the extramarital affair of his son-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), husband of Harlan's daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis). He was also terminating financial support for daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette); cutting entitled grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) out of his will; and firing his son Walt (Michael Shannon) as head of his publishing company.

But Benoit takes greatest interest in Harlan's quiet nurse and close confidant Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). The daughter of an illegal immigrant, she is well liked by all the family members and incapable of lying, and Benoit trusts her to help connect the dots.

A throwback to old-fashioned Agatha Christie-type mysteries, Knives Out presents a rich cast of characters, plenty of reasons to suspect everyone, layers of lying, and clever detective work. Writer and director Rian Johnson assembles the puzzle with a light touch, the film never taking itself too seriously. A few good pinches of well-placed humour help to keep the mood airy.

The first two thirds of the film, mostly confined to the mansion, are excellent. Johnson expeditiously introduces all the characters, gives most of them reasons to kill, and recreates snippets of the evening before the death when Harlan was clearly cleaning house and putting his affairs in order, threatening the economic future of many heirs in the process.

The final act unravels with the late introduction of Chris Evans' Ransom characters followed by an ill-advised and poorly executed blackmail sub-plot, the film hitting the road and losing its assured footing in the process.

Within the labyrinth of greed and backstabbing fueling the mystery, Johnson does include snide contemporary social commentary. Marta is an immigrant and the one seemingly pure soul, her work ethic placing her at the center of the family and yet outside it. Harlan's will upturns everyone's expectations, forcing a fundamental reassessment of the economic power dynamic.

With a star name is almost every role each performer gets the one scene to shine, and they are all adequate with a hint of theatricality. Daniel Craig works hard with limited success at an exotic accent to project a vaguely foreign detective. Ana de Armas delivers by far the film's best performance as the conscientious nurse Marta, combining sly panicked comic timing with an ability to say plenty by not saying anything at all. When everyone else is busy revealing sordid secrets, it's wise to listen more and talk less.

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