Knives Out ★★★
A coffee cup tells the story
“Knives Out” is a worthy murder mystery/detective procedural, complete with the twists and turns we expect—and don’t. Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (book, 1934) meets the classic board game “Clue” (first issued 1943).
This Hollywood take, based on the inevitability that people die and can’t take their money or power with them, is the latest in a rich trove of drama about how the wealthy and powerful distribute what they have to the next generation, and to generations after that. Shakespeare understood the potential of the theme, offering his philosophy in “King Lear,” in which the aging ruler of Britain destroys people and almost a kingdom with his plan to divide the realm among his three daughters, based on how each expresses her love to him.
The latest in a rich trove of drama about how the wealthy and powerful distribute what they have to the next generation.
Kings are few these days, but billionaires abound, bringing with them ample opportunity for tyranny, jealousy, intrigue and violence. It’s all there in the acclaimed HBO television series “Succession” (2018-20), featuring a private media conglomerate run by a crusty old man, his psychologically-damaged children chomping at the bit to take over (think Murdochs).
Kings are few these days, but billionaires abound, bringing with them ample opportunity for tyranny, jealousy, intrigue and violence.
“Knives Out” follows a classic genre type: the murder is revealed in the first scene and the rest of the plot is devoted to finding out “whodunnit.” Although a contemporary drama, it has the feel of the Sherlock Holmes era (1880s-1900s), set in and around an enormous red-brick Victorian mansion. Every room is cluttered with objects, a metaphor for the complexity of the crime to be committed on the premises, and for the difficulty in finding its perpetrator. In an unlikely turn, that task falls to Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private eye with a Southern accent whose style of inquiry falls somewhere between that of the outwardly self-effacing Colombo (Peter Falk in the 1970s TV series of the same name) and the high arrogance of Holmes.
Craig and Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, the crime-writer patriarch and victim, offer delightfully credible and effective performances. Most of the other characters—the star-studded cast includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette—are intentionally overstated; it’s part of the genre (the car chase is not part of the genre, and it’s intrusive here). Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) has a sparse, comic role, channeling the archetypal fan by savoring the investigation based on his own reading of Thrombey’s detective stories. The talented LaKeith Stanfield (“Get Out”  and “Sorry to Bother You” ) is wasted as the somewhat placid and up-staged (by Blanc) Lieutenant Elliott.
At 85, Harlan Thrombey sits atop a lucrative and self-made publishing house that issues his novels. The narrative slowly reveals that he has decided, in life and death, that no one in the family will get any of it, or anything else he owns. Unlike Lear, he cares not at all about professions of love and affection. No, he understands his decision as in everyone’s best interest, as an act of freeing his children and their spouses from the corruptions of wealth, and freeing them to undertake what they care about, to discover themselves and construct their own lives.
It’s all very therapeutic, and understandable in a way, in that the family is a collection of the uninspired, uninspiring, and dishonest: a hanger-on, a neer-do-well, a wanna-be, even a crook. Daughter Linda (Curtis) has built her own business, and she’s (perhaps too) proud of it—but she did it with a million-dollar loan from Dad (a not-so-subtle reference to Donald Trump). No wonder Harlan has concluded that the only deserving member of the household is his dedicated nurse, Marta who, it turns out, can beat him at the game, “Go.” Fine, except his kids are now in advanced middle age. If Harlan wanted to create a clan of independent free spirits, he should have started decades ago.
If Harlan wanted to create a clan of independent free spirits, he should have started decades ago.
Marta (a charming Ana de Armas, at once innocent and calculating) is at the center of the story in ways that cannot be told without spoiling the many pleasures of this nicely crafted, tension-filled story. Director and writer Rian Johnson’s credentials include the well-reviewed 2017 Star Wars film and “Looper” (2012).
Ancillary to the plot is the subject of immigration—legal and illegal—a topic that divides the Thrombey family and gives the film additional political valence and contemporary relevance. Marta, although legally in the US, is harboring her undocumented mother and sister. A spirited, sometimes nasty drawing room conversation finds son-in-law Richard (Johnson) condemning immigrants generally, while bringing in Marta as an example of the “good immigrant,” only to treat her, as he does so, as a servant he does not truly see. The family members go out of their way to tell Marta, condescendingly, that they admire her hard work for their father (even though each of them identifies with certainty her native country as a different Central or South American one) and that they will “take care of” her; the latter sentiment shows up later in the film voiced by someone else.
The subject of immigration divides the Thrombey family and gives the film additional political valence and contemporary relevance.
A coffee cup charts the film’s trajectory, and Marta’s. It appears in the first scene, as the maid (a shadow character, yet of some importance) brings breakfast up to Harlan, who occupies the top floor of the house. It says: “My House/My Rules/My Coffee.” That’s Harlan’s view of life. Not much later, the same cup will be in Marta’s hands, as she stands looking down from a 2nd-floor balcony on the family in the driveway, below.
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Noah Segan, Chris Evans.
Runtime: 130 minutes