“We had a blast making this movie,” says writer-director Rian Johnson in a pre-recorded intro to Knives Out. Alas, I did not have a blast watching it. The trailer promised a clever, waspish and stylised take on the whodunnit genre, but the film itself was overlong, curiously unengaging and only intermittently fun. There were a couple of laughs and twisty flourishes, but the starry ensemble cast struggle to breathe life into a disappointingly pedestrian script. “Something is afoot with this whole affair,” ponders private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). “This is a donut case.” No shit, Sherlock.
When millionaire mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his turreted mansion, throat slit while reclining on his chaise longue, the police interview his family and nurse, aided by the eccentric Blanc. At first, “the last of the gentlemen sleuths” stays in the background – his only contribution a few random ‘plinks’ on the piano.
Who done it? Take your pick from a motley crew of selfish and conniving relatives, who all have motive. Most had arguments with Harlan while attending his 85th birthday party on the night of his death. Was it eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), or her Trumpish husband Richard (Don Johnson)? How about publisher son, Walt (Michael Shannon), peeved at Harlan’s refusal to sell film rights for his books to Netflix? Or lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette). Grandson Ransom is the black sheep of the family, who clashed with the old man before storming out – he seems like the obvious culprit.
Given that it is always the person you least suspect – often those who are featured least – could it have been Great Nana Thrombey, Harlan’s mother (K Callan)? The ancient matriarch lurks in the shadows, beady eye trained on the shenanigans. She looks like Maggie Smith’s Lady in the Van, with costume by the Cardinal of Wolsey.
Amidst all the backbiting, warm-hearted Hispanic nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) is called upon by Blanc to help him figure things out. As luck would have it, she cannot lie without vomiting. Despite supposedly being “one of the family,” Marta was not invited to Harlan’s funeral. Johnson pokes fun at the Thrombeys’ racism and there is a running joke about her country of origin, with an ironic quote from the musical Hamilton thrown in for good measure: “immigrants – we get things done.”
Daniel Craig has fun as the enigmatic Blanc, his gravelly Southern drawl sometimes redolent of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards. He is fond of embellishing his speech with long words, claiming “ma presence will be ornamental,” or boasting that his brain “arrives unerringly at the truth.” He is also fond of brandishing an even longer cigar – the size of a policeman’s truncheon.
The first half of Knives Out really drags. Despite the Cluedo board visuals there is no real atmosphere or tension to pull you in. With its tedious close-ups of faces and furniture, the film has a queasy ‘made-for-TV’ feel to it, with little sense of anything going on beneath the surfaces.
Thankfully, things do liven up when we escape the confines of the ancestral mansion and opulent estate, which we eventually learn, “was bought off a Pakistani in the ‘80s.”
Knives Out may all be an elaborate satirical game, of the sort beloved by its control-freak murder victim. But it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.