Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is one of the most successful mystery writers in the world, having sold countless millions of copies of books he releases twice a year, like clockwork. Or at least he used to, but there has been a shock as his housekeeper took him his tea in one of the upper floor rooms of his country mansion and discovered him dead by his own hand, a dagger the weapon he used to end it all. It seems an open and shut case of suicide, except there does not appear to have been any motive, and when the police are interviewing the family who look set to inherit an enormous fortune, there is another man in the room who doesn't seem to be there for any reason...
That man being Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig with an extraordinary accent that another character describes as sounding like Foghorn Leghorn later on, and they're not wrong. The motive for adopting such a cadence would seem to be for fun, and that applied to the rest of the movie as well, it was constructed to take the cast and audience alike on a bit of a romp around Agatha Christine territory. Or maybe closer to that would be Angela Lansbury territory: not for nothing was her long-running mystery series Murder, She Wrote seen on a television at one point, more evidence that writer and director Rian Johnson was messing around with some very staid conventions.
The drawing room murder yarn was, after all, pretty fusty as a genre, more suited to theatre performances in the provinces than a blockbuster movie in 2019, yet here we were with precisely that as the big sleeper hit of that year, providing those audiences with a dollop of escapism, a few thrills and a sprinkling of laughs that said, "Don't take it too seriously, folks!" The plot gave away the killer early on, so technically for most of it, this was not a whodunit at all, more a "how are they going to get out of it?", but if you were anticipating a twist to that set-up then you would not be disappointed as Johnson did his level best to pull the rug out from under the captivated viewers.
Of course, some were not so captivated, and claimed this was not as satisfying as the Christies it was so indebted to, which may be true, but there was a touch of snobbery in that opinion, like the colonials did not have the mettle to pull this off to any great apex of achievement in the style. Which was why the light social commentary was so welcome - you could easily dismiss it and enjoy the film as a straightforward (well...) thriller, but this was coming from the man who made sure in his Star Wars instalment to give those who were exploiting said wars a taste of what they were inflicting on the galaxy. Therefore it was perhaps no surprise to see Knives Out regard the rich as grotesques whose fortune had turned them into the epitome of greed, focused on keeping their privileges as far as they possibly could.
The real lead was not Craig, but Ana de Armas as Marta, Harlan's nurse who accidentally administers a fatal dose of morphine to him as part of his pre-bedtime medication, and spends the rest of the movie negotiating both the law and the clan of her employer to ensure she does not fall victim to circumstances and end up behind bars. Marta was a lowly immigrant who Johnson obviously had huge sympathy for, and as the underdog had a lot to prove to justify her presence to the others, adding a layer of class conflict that was surprisingly potent. But it was not simply that and that alone, for there were references to other whodunits, from a Choose Your Own Adventure book to the all-star casts Christie enjoyed post-Murder on the Orient Express with Albert Finney, and even a reference to Stephen Sondheim who had co-written one of the great, cult murder mysteries of the movies, The Last of Sheila. Everyone was having a whale of a time performing this, so it was rather overstuffed and over-ornate, but overall, a good show all round. Music by Nathan Johnson.
[Available on digital download from 21st March.
And on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Steelbook from 30th March.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray has commentaries and featurettes as extras.]