Movie Review: Knives Out (2019)
“Knives Out” got great notices from critics out of the Toronto International Film Festival in September, as well as upon its release last month (RT: 97%), and it may be because it’s something we haven’t seen in a while: a smart, funny whodunit with an all-star cast. Its antecedents include the now-cult film “Clue” from 1984 and two mostly forgotten movies from the ’70s: “The Cheap Detective” (1978), starring Peter Falk, and “Murder By Death” (1976), starring everyone. I need to watch those again but I’m pretty sure this one’s better. Its mystery is better, the solution is better, and the whole thing is a kind of beautiful “fuck you” to the fears of the Trump base: Yes, illegal Latin Americans are taking over; and they will take over even though they’re nice and kind, and we’re devious and murderous. We’re the bad guys. They win.
The movie opens on a shot of the coffee mug of acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), which reads:
And it ends on the same coffee mug, now in the hands of his nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), whose family is here illegally from Ecuador ... or Brazil? ... or Peru? Each member of the Thrombey family assumes a different country, and she, and the movie, never correct them. It’s a great bit. The Thrombeys—at their best—are people who imagine themselves solicitous but are not, caring but are not. They just have money. Or Harlan does.
It’s the morning after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, held at his large, gothic mansion, and in an attic room, rather than his own master bedroom, his housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), finds him dead, his throat cut. Suicide is assumed. The police arrive—Lakeith Stanfield, playing nondescript, even bored, and Noah Segan as unabashed Harlan Thrombey fan—and they question each family member.
It’s a whodunit, so of course everyone has a reason to be the who:
- Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson, welcome back), husband to Harlan’s eldest, no-nonsense daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), was having an affair, and Harlan called him on it
- Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette, brilliant), Harlan’s daughter-in-law to a deceased son, was double-dipping Harlan’s payments for daughter Meg’s college, and Harland was cutting her off completely
- Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), youngest son, who ran his father’s publishing house, was being relieved of his position
But who’s that sitting in the chair behind the detectives—laying back in the chair, really—and occasionally plinking a single note on the piano there? Why, it’s Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the famous Cajun detective, who was written up in The New Yorker. (In a flashback we see the issue, with its very New Yorker-esque illustration of Blanc. Kudos, production team.) Apparently he was hired by an anonymous person, with an envelope of cash, to look into the suicide. Which he assumes isn’t a suicide.
Soon, he’s wandering the grounds with the nurse, Marta, whom he anoints his Watson, and who seems nervous and distraught. She is, for two reasons: 1) if she lies she throws up—literally; and 2) she killed Harlan. Or she thinks she did.
Post-party, she and Harlan were in the attic room playing the board game Go, when the board got upended. In the confusion, her medical bag is mixed-up and the shot she gives Harland isn’t his meds but morphine to dull the pain: But 100 mg instead of 3—a lethal dosage. She tells Harlan. The master mystery writer reacts both oddly and typically: He begins to plot again. He says: Leave by the front door so everyone can see you, drive away, return on foot, climb the trellis into the attic, put on my robe, head down the creaky stairs and make sure people see the robe, return, leave by the trellis, etc. It will mean she’ll be safely away at the time of his death. Then he slits his own throat.
For a whodunit, I didn’t spend much time wondering who because I kept wondering how Marta didn’t do it. (I was also distracted by de Armas’ beautiful lips.) What new evidence would come to light? She looks even more guilty when the will is read and she gets everything. But everything. The family, solicitous to this point, telling her she’ll always be taken care of, is furious, and all but hound her from the house that’s now hers.
But we still assume she’s innocent. It’s not just that she apparently can’t lie; she seems like a good person. And she is—even better than she knows.
Ready? Again: spoiler alert.
The solution has to do with Harlan’s favorite grandson, the ne’er-do-well Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), who couldn’t even be bothered to make the funeral. But he’s there for the reading of the will, smirking throughout, and seems the one family member who doesn’t have metaphoric knives out for Marta. He drives her to a diner, they talk, etc. Is he trying to help her? No. The opposite. Because he did it.
Party night, Harlan told him he was cut from the will and Marta would get everything. Ransom, though, knew something about the law—or at least slayer statutes. If the benefactor was found guilty of killing the deceased, even involuntarily, they would get nothing. So Ransom switched labels on the bottles and then anonymously hired Blanc to investigate. Here’s the thing: Marta wound up grabbing the right bottle, because she knew the viscosity of the medicine inside, even though Ransom had mislabeled it. So Harlan wasn’t doomed. She was innocent even of the screw-up.
From Bond to Zod
My interest in the movie kind of waxed and waned with my perception of Blanc. Initially, with his piano-plinking ways, he seems formidable and I was intrigued. Halfway through, he seems an overrated dullard—missing the blood on Marta’s shoe; listening to music as chaos and cops erupt behind him—and I got a little bored. Then he wraps it all up in a beautiful package.
All the actors seemed to have a gas playing against type. James Bond gets to be the Southern detective with an accent as thick as molasses, Captain America is the spoiled SOB who plots murder, while Gen. Zod is the cringing, browbeaten, talentless youngest son.
That’s part of the appeal of the movie, too. You know that Lloyd Dobler speech from “Say Anything”: “I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed”? That’s kinda this. It’s not a movie based on a comic book, or video game, or novel, or another movie. It’s not a reboot or a sequel. It hasn't been processed to death. Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brothers Bloom,” “Looper,” “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi”) simply thought it up and made it run.
And that ending: Marta, on the second-floor balcony of the Thrombey estate, “My Rules” coffee mug in hand, and looking down, not angrily but curiously, at the spoiled Thrombey clan below, who are slowly realizing that the tables have turned on them. Forever. Most movies out of so-called liberal Hollywood aren’t exactly liberal; they’re “a good man with a gun kills many bad guys with guns.” This one is liberal. Gloriously so.