“KNIVES OUT”: The family that sins together grins together

Daniel Craig…Southern fried private eye

My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 27) | 130 minutes | MPAA rating:

Published November 26, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

The genteel drawing-room murder mystery gets roughed up but emerges more or less intact in “Knives Out,” the latest from “it” director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “The Last Jedi”).

What you’ve got here is a dead man, a house full of suspects (played by some very big names),  a Southern-gentleman detective who seems to have been dipped in molasses — and a gleefully satiric sense of humor.

Plus a lot of snarky attitude when it comes to privileged white folks.

The film begins with the housekeeper for famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) discovering her employer’s corpse.  His throat has been cut.

Apparently the crime (if it is a crime…it might be a very bizarre suicide) took place shortly after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, an event attended by a pack of relations crammed into the old man’s semi-spooky turn-of-the-last-century mansion (described by one cop as “practically a Clue board”). Apparently the evening (which we see in flashbacks) was marked by some discord — old Harlan was no pushover and he loved rubbing his family’s noses in their inadequacies.

The local officer in charge of the investigation (LaKeith Stanfield) has his hands full with the various children, in-laws and others, all of whom seem to have some motive for killing their Sugar Daddy and a bad attitude when it comes to dealing with authority. So he’s mildly relieved when a famous private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), mysteriously shows up.

Benoit, who talks with a slow drawl so thick it drips sorghum, has been hired by an anonymous client to look into the case. He won’t stop until he gets answers. Think Matlock on Thorazine with a cannabis chaser.

Murder mysteries in this  vein (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Gosford Park”) rely on a large cast of eccentrics to keep us engaged and guessing. “Knives Out” has a colorfully hateful bunch.

The Suspects

There’s Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a lady exec with a scorched earth business sense and a sleazoid husband (Don Johnson) who’s been cheating on her. They’ve got a grown son, Ransom (Chris Evans), a born conniver, playboy and smirker recently cut out of the will.

Son Walt (Michael Shannon) ostensibly handles Dad’s business interests, but has long resented his lack of any real power. He’s got a teenage son (Jaeden Martel) who appears to be a fascist in training.

Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is a fatuous lifestyle coach who’s been financing her own lavish lifestyle and a college education for her  daughter (Katherine Langford) by embezzling from the Thrombey fortune.

Finally there’s Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who becomes the film’s heroine. Unlike just about every other human in sight she’s loyal and honest and genuinely cares for the old man. But she comes from a family of illegal immigrants, a fact the nose-in-the-air Thrombeys will use against her — particularly when it appears that she’ll get the lion’s share of the inheritance.

Ultimately the case will be solved through an unlikely partnership between Marta and the quick-thinking Blanc, but not without a lot of dead ends, reversals and life-threatening situations.

“Knives Out” is at its most irreverent in its first hour, when we’re introduced to the characters and the basic setup.  After that it settles into a familiar Agatha Christie mode, less a deconstruction of the genre than a celebration of it.

Fair enough. “Knives Out” is too long and some of the characters get lost along the way, but overall it’s good nasty fun, clever enough that you cannot call it mindless but so accessible that just about everyone can enjoy the ride.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene




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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.