Who doesn’t enjoy a good whodunnit? Mystery, intrigue, politics and suspense are all classic elements of a good murder mystery. While Murder Mystery with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston provided some superficial entertainment in this tradition, it paled in comparison to Clue. Many will remember Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote, the intrepid (nosy) author turned detective who would inevitably find herself wrapped up in a murder mystery each week at the same time. Cabot Cove must surely be the most dangerous place in America yet the popular TV show with Angela Lansbury served as testament to pop culture’s appetite for this kind of entertainment in the ’80s.
Based on Knives Out and the re-emergence of Murder on the Orient Express, it seems that those nostalgic memories now haunt the directors and writers of today. While the popularity of classic detective murder mystery shows may have waned in the United States, it has ironically remained alive and well in the United Kingdom, with shows like Poirot, Inspector Morse and the spin-off of Lewis nursing this appetite. Naturally, the climate, history and temperament makes itself more well-suited, whether it be in London or Oxford. Typically, big old buildings, a trail of money, a homicide and ensuing malice are goaded toward justice by a brilliant detective and his partner.
While Knives Out doesn’t have British culture, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie to fall back on, it does have one of its most famous actors in Daniel Craig. While inextricably linked with James Bond and the world of Ian Fleming, Craig has a history of type-breaking turns in films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Cowboys & Aliens and Logan Lucky. While playing a Southerner with some reasonable accent work, his sheer presence helps to muddy the waters as the exuberant detective Benoit Blanc.
“Blanc, Benoit Blanc.”
Set at a lavishly decorated country mansion, the estate of a wealthy author well into his 80s, things go a bit haywire when the octogenarian is found dead after a family gathering, which implicates every attendee. Knives Out is unusual in the way that it plays off detective and murder mystery formula. Starting in the deep end with flashbacks to recount various alibis, it’s an unusual yet entertaining whodunnit.
The star-studded crime drama makes a refreshing change, giving precedence to the performers. Instead of being conduits to link action set pieces and spectacle, they’re given an opportunity to shine. A character-driven drama with many twists and turns, Johnson keeps the camera up close, allowing the nuance of the performances to come through. The production design is detailed yet the up close nature of the cinematography gives the director an opportunity to focus on his cast’s faces, which are all quite fascinating. The one beautiful face he keeps returning to is Ana de Armas whose performance is underpinned by a deep sense of humanity, humility and honesty. Having had supporting roles in Hands of Stone, War Dogs and Blade Runner 2049, de Armas has come a long way, truly owning her space in Knives Out.
Serving as co-leads, Craig and de Armas guide an ensemble including: Michael Shannon, Toni Colette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer. It isn’t a competition, but Rian Johnson seems to put a lot of trust in his actors, who don’t disappoint. Each relishing the opportunity of featuring in this kind of film, there’s nowhere to hide as they each take their seat on the throne of knives.
Johnson’s unusual storytelling and quirky script keep things moving at a clipped pace, using situation to ramp up the undercurrent of dark comedy. While he has amassed a fine collection of dramatic actors, who are committed, Craig has to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to nursing the charm. While a dashing and daring performance that will undoubtedly go a long way to shedding his 007 skin, charm is the only thing that is lacking in this refreshing and sharp re-imagining. Finding itself in the same realm as Clue and Murder She Wrote, Johnson doesn’t quite manage to capture the pitch perfect tone that would have turned this murder mystery into a dark comedy masterpiece.
While the versatile sci-fi director shows his flair and versatility, the comedy is downplayed when the situation’s underlying calamity is ripe for the plucking. The casting does suggest that he wanted to go a more serious route, yet given the Arrested Development circumstances it feels like a missed opportunity. Based on Daniel Craig’s scene-stealing turn, Knives Out could have leaned more into the goofiness of Clue for inspiration. Instead, he goes with what could be described as serious camp. The kitsch style is a refreshing point of departure for murder mystery fans, cleverly turning things upside down but it could have been so much more.
Sporting a cast of today’s most criminally underrated stars, refreshing the murder mystery genre for modern audiences, trusting his actors to deliver the goods, switching things up with tightly packed cinematography and maintaining good pacing with a wildly entertaining revisit to ’80s crime dramas, Knives Out is a enjoyable albeit in-your-face murder mystery with dark comedy undertones. It could have been more charming, would have probably worked better in the UK and just seems a bit off in terms of tone but still represents a near-rollicking and inspirational reinvention with the best of intentions.
The bottom line: Refreshing