The eighty-fifth birthday of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is a cause for celebration, surrounded by his loving family, his successful real estate businesswoman daughter Linda with her husband Richard and their son Ransom, the black sheep of the family, his son Walt who runs the publishing firm and his wife Donna and their son Jacob, his troubles less conspicuous but still a subject of discussion in the family, and Joni, the widowed daughter-in-law and her own daughter Meg.
The mansion full of grotesque figurines and grand paintings along with displays related to the Thrombey empire, an astonishing arrangement of knives out for all to see, the hounds running through the mist across the leafy grounds of the estate, the celebration turns to horror when Harlan’s body is discovered in his attic room the following morning, dead from apparently self-inflicted wounds.
The funeral held, they are preparing to move on, business as usual, when the police arrive in the company of noted private detective Benoit Blanc, anonymously appointed to investigate the death of the grandsire, an unwelcome intrusion into the Thrombey clan whose questions quickly cause the public façade of a family united in grief to crumble.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson who conceived the idea after his debut feature, Knives Out merges the murder mystery of his low-budget high school thriller Brick with the clockwork plot mechanics of his time travel paradox Looper and the large ensemble cast of his highest profile production, The Last Jedi.
Referred to disparagingly by Ransom as “CSI KFC,” Detective Blanc (Spectre’s Daniel Craig uncharacteristically laidback) has his work cut out for him: everyone had a motive, everyone has lied to him and the rest of the family, and everyone had opportunity, and the only person he feels he can trust is Marta Cabrera (Blade Runner 2049‘s Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and companion, ostensibly the last person to see him alive other than the killer.
The premise paralleling François Ozon’s 8 femmes, albeit minus the colourful period trappings and musical numbers, the scenes of the initial interviews and flashbacks become repetitive but are necessary to establish character and contradiction as the stewing resentment is brought to the boil before it breaks out into a wider investigation punctuated by occasional laughs, though less than the trailer would suggest, the reserve of Christie rather than the shenanigans of Clue.
The ensemble clearly enjoying themselves, Knives Out is carried by the superlative cast in what is in effect the most expensive episode of Columbo ever staged, Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis wonderfully elegant and frosty as Linda, Cold in July’s Don Johnson the laconic and duplicitous Richard, Take Shelter’s Michael Shannon subdued but still creepy as Walt and Chris Evans the antithesis of the upstanding and uptight Captain America as the disrespectful Ransom, skipping the funeral but early for the reading of the will.
A celebration of the country house murder genre whose plot reversals are more akin to narrative somersaults, Knives Out takes a long time to deliver the killer blows but the wait is rewarded as Johnson returns from the shared universe of Star Wars to a house which is governed by his own rules and a style of filmmaking in which he is naturally more comfortable, concerned with performance and presentation over visual effects.
Knives Out is on general release from Wednesday 27th November