Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi,” “Brick”) helms a solid mystery in the mode of Agatha Christie. With stellar cinematography by frequent collaborator Steve Yedlin, the film contains several visual cues to cinema of the past. The film can be seen as a conceptual exercise in making an old fashioned film with a timely edge.
The story begins when young nurse Marta (Ana De Armas) finds her client, the famed aged mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dead on the sofa with his throat cut, the presumed weapon a knife on the floor.
Needless to say, investigators are brought in to the Addams Family-ish mansion and Detective Elliot (LaKeith Stanfeild) and investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) are on the case.
Eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is interviewed. She is prim and judgmental. Then Walt (Michael Shannon) Harlan’s youngest son, is questioned. He is taciturn, defensive and in charge of his father’s publishing legacy.
Joni (Toni Collete) Harlan’s daughter in-law is asked questions as well. She is scattered and theatrical. Her face quivers.
The investigators are compelled to go back to Marta. After all, as his nurse she was a keeper of his secrets. She also has a reliable if very peculiar trait. Marta becomes physically sick at the mere thought of lying.
A second round of questions commences and it becomes clear that most everyone in the Thrombey family is egotistical and underhanded.
While it does help if you are a fan of the whodunit genre as made iconic by Christie, the film excels in its mood and social commentary. A few of the Thrombeys are bigoted under the sway of Trump’s presidency, most notably Harlan’s son-in-law (Don Johnson). Marta is an undocumented worker and she rightly reasons that if she is thought to be guilty of anything wrong, she can be deported. To make matters worse, Harlan’s grandson (Jaeden Martell) is a right wing troll and a brat.
The film contains many allusions to film history. Ransom, Harlan’s other grandson (Chris Evans), has a nonchalant lope similar to James Dean in “Giant,” and there are shafts of bright light and deep shadow that recall the noir of Billy Wilder and David Lynch. The cluttered Gothicism of the mansion itself recalls “Sunset Boulevard,” while the appearance of M. Emmett Walsh as a befuddled old-school VHS tech cannot fail to remind one of “Blood Simple.”
Toni Collette alone with her face harshly lit (as if it were made of rosewood) instantly brings her role in “Hereditary” to the fore. Her face possesses an eerie pallor from darkness to light and back again. At other times her face appears blanched, fried by the cruel artificiality of fluorescents.
Although everyone in the film is up against it in some way, Marta has the upper hand. As the “outsider” she has the power of bringing forth the truth, and we can see this in a final reveal that gives a nod to “The Exorcist,” but thankfully has more to do with O. Henry in terms of a genuine satisfying surprise.
“Knives Out” is an entertaining concept film that is also an engaging story. If you ever pined for Agatha Christie to be re-incarnated, this film is your answer. Better yet, it is visually smart and playful throughout, having one Marta Canbrera in particular with whom you can truly empathize, well beyond its “mystery in an old house” trappings.
Write Ian at email@example.com