US (2019) Dir. Rian Johnson
Families – we meant to love them unconditionally but they sure know how to push our buttons like nobody else, maybe even enough to drive us to murder. Well hopefully not, that would be terrible but then again there are some twisted people out there, especially if there is something to gain from it…
On the morning after a party celebrating his 85th birthday, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in his study dead with his throat slashed, by housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired by an anonymous client to solve the case, immediately concluding suicide, which the Thrombey family, at the house for the party, refuse to believe.
Blanc questions the family and Harlan’s staff, noting everyone would benefit from his death. When Harlan’s will is read, the potential heirs – daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son Walt (Michael Shannon), and widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) – hope his money and estate would go to one of them. Instead, he chose to leave everything to his young immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), and she is now suspected of murder.
Well, I’m not going to tell you who did it, though I can say it wasn’t the butler – because there isn’t one! But like any good whodunit, there is a list of suspects all with plausible motives for bumping off Harlan – and Knives Out is a good whodunit! In the tradition of Agatha Christie, Rian Johnson looks to win back all those Star Wars fans he upset with this inventively sinuous tale of greed, family disloyalty, and dead bodies.
It might be a modern day film but there is a distinct whiff of the period setting in which Poirot or Miss Marple would be putting their legendary detective skills to good use, most notably the sprawling country mansion, wealthy patriarch and his family of spoiled rich kids with their own spoiled rich kids. Throw in a detective with irritating foibles to match his tenacity and astute, forensic reasoning and you have all the ingredients for a classic mystery.
Two police officers (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are already on the case and have come to their own conclusion of suicide but Blanc was summoned by an outside party, his reputation giving him near-celebrity status, which in itself is a mystery in need of solving. But that would have to wait as explaining Harlan’s death is the priority and as Blanc soon discovers, there are many issues that need ironing out.
Extensive interviews reveal Harlan had heated conversations with family members at different times on the day of the party which were partially overheard, thus sufficient to make someone a suspect. For example, Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) was seen leaving the study shortly after Harlan is heard threatening “Either you tell her or I will”; during the party Walt’s obnoxious son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) overhears other grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) tell Harlan he is “making a big mistake”.
Meanwhile, Joni is on the outs with Harlan for fraudulently claiming double school fees for her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) from him, whilst Walt is fired from running Harlan’s cash cow publishing company. Since everyone all depends financially on Harlan the very idea he should leave what they believe is their birthright to lowly outsider Marta is anathema to them, and so the bullying begins for her to reject the will and hand it back to them.
You’re probably thinking you’ve seen it all before so why bother watching what amounts to a rehashing of clichéd storylines and tropes when the originals still exist? Well, as the saying goes the devil is in the detail, in this instance, how Johnson has followed the tried and tested formula but added his own ideas into the mix. The first is this being a modern film, thus Marta is not just a foreign worker but her mother is an illegal immigrant; this is not Johnson playing for woke political approval, he uses this to cogent effect.
Since this is a comedy – not quite a laugh of loud one but more in the essaying of the tropes and genre conventions – the truth of Harlan’s death is brilliantly subverted from the norms of a simple explanation to something so outlandish it shouldn’t work. I’ll say nothing more except Johnson must have had fun working it all out then repeating it with added twists for the misdirection, the result being rather ingenious when you realise the multiple layers applied to it throughout the film.
Less conscientious is Marta’s unusual trait in which she cannot tell a lie without vomiting! There is one moment when I truly feared this was going to lead to a gross American Pie like accidental imbibing of her regurgitation but Johnson thankfully avoids this, but does ensure a means to an end for giving Marta such a peculiar affliction. I suppose it is one way to ensure she stands out from all the other innocents suspected of murder by greedy relatives of a rich man that came before her.
Ana de Armas is a star in ascension and will be seen in the next Bond film (if it ever comes out) reuniting her with Daniel Craig, but whilst her more well known co-stars ham it up in their roles as the hideous Thromeby family, it is de Armas who, like Marta, is the heart and soul of the whole film. I would comment on the America accent Craig adopts for Blanc but I’m not sure what it was supposed to be, though he is good as the quirky sleuth.
Hopefully I’ve not given too much away about Knives Out for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, since it is one of those films where even discussing an innocuous scene might be an inadvertent spoiler. And if you haven’t seen it and enjoy a good mystery, it would be a crime to miss this one!