A Film Review: Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out is a mystery film released in September 2019 by Lionsgate Films, directed by Rian Johnson, produced by Ram Bergman, and starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, and Christopher Plummer.

Synopsis:

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A wealthy, mystery fiction writer, Harlan Thrombey, is found dead in his study the night after his 85th birthday celebration, which was attended by his children, their families, as well as the help at home. Harlan’s carotid has been cleanly severed, and he holds the knife used to do it. The police initially deem the death as a suicide and conduct investigations of the family and the others as a formality, but suspicions abound when Harlan bequeaths none of his possessions to his family. Renowned private detective, Benoit Blanc, is hired by an anonymous party to investigate whether or not the death was truly a suicide, and he tries to use his quick wit and a charming southern drawl to separate complicated family dynamics from the truth about Harlan’s death, and to find out who hired him.

Going from outside the family to within, the cast includes:

Daniel Craig plays Benoit Blanc, an eccentric, clever detective who often trusts his judgement in investigations, rather than hard evidence. He holds some renown, having been featured in a New York Post article, “The Last of the Gentlemen Sleuths”, and has methods of manipulation that only intimidate those who have some role to play in hiding the truth. Blanc is adept at finding the loose ends and determining the tension points that make people talk.

Ana de Armas plays Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s home nurse – she is a hard-working woman, the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, a fact that is often used as leverage against her. Marta is very close to the family, and especially close and trusted by Harlan. Marta serves as a useful source of information for Blanc due to her regurgitative response to lying. Marta is held is high regard by Blanc, who views her as a good person.

Lakeith Stanfield plays Detective Lieutenant Elliot, an intelligent police detective who, while initially dismissive of Blanc’s methods and eccentricities, gives Blanc much space and time to conduct his investigation. Noah Segan plays Trooper Wagner, a young, easily excitable officer. He loves Harlan’s novels, and acts as though the investigation itself were a murder mystery, gawking at Blanc’s methods.

Edi Patterson plays Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper and the one who first found Harlan’s body. Fran is somewhat of a conspiracy theorist, believing that stories she hears in fiction might actually happen. Perhaps that paranoia is caused by the marijuana cigarettes she keeps hidden in her ‘stash’. Fran is also an opportunist, seeking to make a [SPOILER] pretty penny in a time of mourning.

The Thrombey family is led, and financed, by Harlan Thrombey, a successful mystery writer with over 80 million copies sold. In the lead up to his 85th birthday, he has several revelations about his family, whom he loves dearly, and how his financial support of them has left them sheltered and deprived them of true accomplishments of their own. Harlan enjoys the company of Marta, respecting her for her studiousness and intellect, claiming that she beats him at Go more than anyone else. Harlan has several ailments that require him to be medicated every day by Marta.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Linda Drysdale, Harlan’s eldest daughter. She is a power-suit wearing, type A, real estate mogul, an empire started with an initial capital of $1 million from her father. She is slightly jealous of Walt, who has been able to coast through life by simply managing their father’s self-sustaining publishing company. Linda is married to Richard Drysdale, portrayed by Don Johnson, but it is noted that the real estate business is owned solely by Linda. Richard is shown to be insensitive, asking Marta to weigh in on illegal immigration and saying in front of her that “America is for Americans”. Richard is rattled when Harlan reveals pictures at the beginning of the film that capture him having an affair. This presumably perturbs Richard, who knows that infidelity could lead to the end of the marriage.

Together, Linda and Richard have a son, Hugh Ransom Drysdale, portrayed by Chris Evans. Ransom is the black sheep of the family – he is routinely criticized by his aunts, uncles, and parents, and is aristocratic and condescending in his interactions. For instance, he makes ‘the help’ call him Hugh, while he prefers everyone else to call him Ransom. Ransom initially laughs at his family’s reaction to the will reading and offers help to Marta, but ulterior motives are strongly suspected from him.

Walt, played by Michael Shannon, is Harlan’s youngest son and the manager of Harlan’s publishing company. Walt seeks to grow the company by seeking film and television rights, but Harlan is unwilling to foray into these mediums. Walt is laid off from his role by Harlan at the start of the film, stating that being tied to the publishing company has limited Walt from launching his own career. Walt is married to a conservative woman Donna, played by Riki Lindhome, and together they have a son, Jacob, portrayed by Jaeden Martell, who is an antisocial, and yet despicable alt-right social media troll.

Toni Collette plays Joni Thrombey, the widow of Harlan’s second son – Joni is at first a warm person, and she openly espouses liberal ideologies among the family. She tries to prevent Richard from putting Marta in an uncomfortable position, but her true colors are shown when she panics after being written out of the will. She was also found to be getting double payments from Harlan for her daughter Meg’s tuition. Meg, played by Katherine Langford, is even more liberal than her mother, and considers Marta to be part of her family. When she and her mother are written out of the will, she panics when she finds that she may not be able to afford school tuition any longer. It is unknown whether her actions were her own or influenced by her family’s desires.

Finally, K Callan plays Great Nana, Harlan’s elderly mother – she is shown to have signs of dementia and is generally aloof and unaware, but Blanc believes that she knows more than she lets on.

Overall Impressions [SPOILERS]

Knives Out was an exceptionally well-constructed film, from its pacing to its cinematography. I had many worries going into the film that there would be red herrings galore with improbable circumstances, but I was pleasantly surprised that the motives and mode of execution were all plausible and more importantly, believable. In addition, though I was initially concerned that Daniel Craig would be unsuitable to play an American detective from the south, I was happy to note that he could break through his typecast as 007. His southern drawl, however, was hardly convincing, but it somehow created an ironic air about his persona that felt satisfying. The portrayal of the Thrombey family was exceptional, showing complex relationship dynamics while ultimately conveying the love and unity of the family – yet this unity is very much centered around a sense of entitlement.

The two main characters are undoubtedly Benoit Blanc and Marta Cabrera, and their predicaments are inextricably linked from the moment they meet. Though Blanc knows that the Marta is somehow involved in the death of Harlan, he cannot reconcile that she was the mastermind or would have done it with malice. Therefore, he turns his attention to the family members. For Marta, she believes that she has to stay one step ahead of Blanc, though she is not his primary suspect. This is because she is under the impression that she was ultimately responsible for Harlan’s death after mixing up the medication and overmedicating Morphine.

Marta is the perfect protagonist for this film, being a hard-working second-generation immigrant who is an extremely compassionate and capable nurse, amidst an aristocratic family filled to the brim with prima donnas who preach self-reliance yet go berserk once their father’s wealth isn’t passed on to them. Marta never abandons her morals that compel her to be good, as she attempts to revive Fran even though she thinks that Fran could expose her secret. These personality traits help eliminate her as a prime suspect in Blanc’s line-up. Blanc believes in the virtues of people and instantly sees that the Thrombey family does not have any semblance of them – though some are liberal, and others are conservatives, the family has a very unifying sense of entitlement. Blanc is a very likable detective with his approach quite different than the stereotype of the hard-boiled detective. He isn’t a chauvinist or a sexist, and he is generally kind to the police and tertiary bystanders to the crime.

Chris Evans’s portrayal of Ransom is very compelling and is a sharp turn from his role as America’s hero Captain Rodgers. Ransom’s character development takes the audience for a ride, with his entrance painting him as a cold, disrespectful snob, but his rebellion against the family and his rescue of Marta leads one to believe that perhaps he was good. But his plan, while more nefarious than that of his family’s, was always to keep his grandfather’s money for himself, and his motivations are ultimately no different than those of the rest of his lot.

Most of the film I thought was very feasible, with the exception of the drug mix-up – the density difference between the two medications, unless drastically different would not have been easily discerned by someone, so it seems incomprehensible that Marta would initially rely more on feel than on the medication label itself. It turned into a happy coincidence, but still reeks of negligence. But this is a small price to pay for an otherwise exceptional movie. I particularly like how Blanc seeks Great Nana as a source of information – there is something to be said about the wisdom of someone who constantly watches others without speaking a word of their own. Though the rest of the family routinely underestimates the intellectual capacity of Great Nana, Blanc understands that there is more there than meets the eye.

Any fan of mystery films would greatly enjoy this movie but is particularly palatable to those who don’t like psychological thrillers with loads of suspense – there are only a few jump scares, and no excessive gore is shown in the film. I eagerly look forward to sequels and hope they explore the subsequent adventures of Benoit Blanc.

“One thing I assume of age is weariness. Damned if I don’t get more tired every day. Tired of what I do. Following arcs, like lobbed rocks. The inevitability of truth. But the complexity and the gray lie not in the truth, but what you do with the truth once you have it.”

~ Benoit Blanc, Knives Out, (1:24:15)

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