Synopsis: Whodunit revolving around a wealthy man, his greedy family and his nurse.
If your personal Venn diagram of interests includes the board game Clue, Captain Von Trapp, Southern Gothic and Immigration Policy, then you must see Knives Out where they all come together.
First, Captain Von Trapp: Christopher Plummer (forever sublime as the fecund Captain in The Sound of Music) is Harlan Thrombey, the wealthy patriarch of spoiled, grasping offspring. Harlan’s fortune is built on his series of crime novels, including– love this title– The Menagerie Tragedy Trilogy. His family checks in from time to time to ask for money or to curry favor.
Knives Out begins at Harlan’s estate in Massachusetts where his family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday. The attendees include: his son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs the publishing company for the mysteries, his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who started her business with her father’s money and Joni (Toni Colette), the lifestyle guru widow of the author’s late son. I suppose it was too much to hope for that Gwyneth Paltrow play the preening, decadent guru.
Second, the board game Clue: The party takes place, but before the next morning, there will be a murder. And greed with a capital G is the likely motive.
The police are called the next day when the housekeeper discovers the body of… someone (no spoilers). Two detectives interview people at the house, all witnesses and possible suspects. There are adult-ish grandchildren present as well: Meg, the lifestyle guru’s college student daughter who needs tuition money. Jacob, Harlan’s publisher son’s teen who is referred to as the Nazi Child by one of the characters for his alt-right leanings. And, best of all, Chris Evans as Ransom who loves the luxe life that his granddad funds. He’s quick to bait the other family members and makes no secret of his entitled attitude. He also looks great wearing a plush Irish fisherman’s sweater that is both practical and flattering.
Third, Southern Gothic: There is a Southern private detective who participates in the police investigation, a one Benoit (Ben wah) Blanc, played by Daniel Craig. Extra points to screenwriter and director Rian Johnson for a name that conjures a walk through old family, faded glory Lou’ siana. Honestly, I’m not sure why Daniel Craig gets so many roles and in particular this one. It’s rumored that Craig based the accent off of historian Shelby Foote who hailed from the Deep South; notably, Mississippi and Alabama. But the accent is so outlandish as to be comical, or even insulting to connoisseurs of regional accents. He sounds like a cartoon of a dandy Southern rooster. In fact, I would have replaced him with a cartoon of an adult human-sized rooster. But I have to admit, although Craig’s take on the character is preposterous and distracting, the script gives him some damned good investigative skills.
Fourth, Immigration Policy: Patriarch Harlan’s old age has saddled him with infirmities that require a nurse’s care, and he has chosen a young woman named Marta (Ana de Armas) to care for him. He’s also become accustomed to her good company and hires her for extra hours that they spend chatting and playing board games. Southern Rooster zeroes in on Marta as a key witness, or is it suspect? She was present at the birthday party and was mostly a silent witness, as the family doesn’t much care for socializing with the hired help. In addition to Southern Rooster’s attention she has other problems, namely that her undocumented mother lives with her and she worries that she will be found out. The Thrombey family who are still left assert that Marta is from Venezuela… or Colombia. They’re not sure because it doesn’t matter to them. What matters is that Marta remember the party the way they want her to.
Venn Diagram, Knives Out: If you are familiar with Rian Johnson’s 2005 film Brick starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt you know that he put a premium on updating genres. In the case of Brick, he updates Film Noir with a high schooler setting out to unravel the circumstances of a classmate’s death. With his latest, he gives a much-needed update to the whodunnit; sparing us yet another Agatha Christie retread. I mean, society has changed a lot in nearly a century. But Knives Out demonstrates how human nature has not.
P.S. Rian Johnson’s script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 2020 Academy Awards.
P.P.S. Click here for a picture of Chris Evans’ adorable doggo, Dodger wearing a fisherman’s sweater like Chris wore in the movie.