Crime, Characters, and Christie in Knives Out
This is a movie that from the moment I heard about it felt tailor made for me. Rian Johnson, a director I admire for his clear love of films and his ability to play with genre making another mystery film. While 2005’s Brick worked within the tropes and trappings of the noir - a setting within an American high school but having his characters speak in a pseudo 1930s gangster slang of his own creation - Knives Out was set to take on the elaborately set and characterful crimes from the realm of Agatha Christie, of which I am a tremendous fan.
Johnson clearly is too, because the way that Knives Out plays with our familiarity and expectations of the whodunnit can only be created so perfectly is by someone who not only knows the genre inside out but loves it as well. Two Christie works sprang to my mind watching it; Crooked House, sharing the large cast of vaguely sinister characters in a country home in the aftermath of an overbearing family patriarch’s death, and After the Funeral, in which Poirot investigates a family due to mysteries happenings in the aftermath of…..well, a funeral. In that, we again see the familiar set up around funerals, wills, and families. Johnson has specifically cited as inspiration the Sidney Lumet Murder on the Orient Express, the Peter Ustinov starring Poirot movies, and The Mirror Crack’d with Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple, along with Murder by Death, Clue, Gosford Park, The Last of Sheila, and Sleuth, although that last one is more “whodunnit adjacent” according to Johnson. He really does know his stuff.
The dysfunctional family full of secrets in Knives Out is the Thrombeys. After the apparent suicide of head of the family Harlan, a famous mystery writer played fleetingly but excellently by Christopher Plummer, the mystery of what may have happened is examined by not just the police but also famed gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Everyone lies to protect their own closeted skeletons, though it becomes apparent that the one who holds the most secrets of all is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and confidante. Who killed Harlan? What is everyone hiding? And will detective Blanc find the culprit?
One of the big things when you write a mystery is when it comes to the big reveal you want to shock the audience. You can’t, however, pull the answer from just anywhere with no clues or indicators because to do so cheats the audience out of getting to play detective along with the characters. Johnson pitches it just right with the possibility that you’ll guess some things, be surprised by others, and yet the whole set-up never feels cheap or contrived.
The script is witty and to the point. There are very few superfluous moments in the movie’s two hour runtime but there are plenty of laughs and little “aha” moments. Every character, whilst maybe not fully fleshed out, is distinct and you get as much of an idea as you need for the story, about who they are and what motivates their actions. The ensemble cast really is a boon in this case, and whilst there are definitely standouts, like Jamie Lee Curtis’ business-minded ice queen Linda and Toni Collette getting to revel in more light-hearted material than some of her other recent roles with lifestyle guru Joni, all bring it 100% in those group scenes. It’s not just the family either, as Detective Lieutenant Elliott and Trooper Wagner respectively, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan (longtime friend of Rian Johnson who has appeared in all of his feature films) get some great moments too.
The best trio of the movie though is Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and Chris Evans (playing bad-to-the-bone playboy Ransom). Evans is clearly relishing the chance to be a bit of a rotten jerk after playing a certain Captain, and just the concept of Marta - a character in a mystery story who physically cannot lie - is such a simple idea but really shakes things up. All three are perfect in every sense, but Craig especially embodies his character so effortlessly you can’t help but be charmed, outrageous accent and all. The real fun of Benoit Blanc is that he’s the kind of character that you just don’t see in film a lot these days, a truly eccentric capital C Character, complete with the smooth talking and baked goods based metaphors. He’s absurd, but his absurdity makes sense in this environment and that makes it a joy to watch.
Johnson has plans for a sequel well, less of a sequel and more of a “continuing adventures of Benoit Blanc” - a different mystery with different characters but the same detective, all disconnected directly but in the same world. It’s another element that Johnson takes from Benoit Blanc’s literary ancestor Hercule Poirot; lots of Poirot stories may reference each other in slight ways, but few follow on directly and so can be read in just about any order and you don’t lose anything. This is definitely the right way to approach it. We’ve had this story with Marta and the Thombeys, let’s move on and get to know a new cast of characters. If Knives Out is Crooked House or one of the other “big house” mysteries, I’d love to see Benoit Blanc in more of a destination mystery, like Death on the Nile, A Caribbean Mystery, or Murder in Mesopotamia, just put him and that drawl of his in a completely new environment. Although that said I don’t think anyone would object to a cheeky little Jamie Lee Curtis cameo.
Of course, the movie can be enjoyed purely on a surface level with the characters and the mystery, but if you want to delve a little deeper there is a lot to find. Rian Johnson has said that one of the things he likes about Gosford Park was the way in which it was predominantly about class structure, and his film uses that scrutiny and takes it out of a period setting. This film is very much about the class and social dynamics of 2019; immigration, privilege, the American president, and all of the various political spectrum factors that come with that setting. But what is interesting is that we see privileged ill behaviour from both ends of that spectrum.
Marta, in addition to being “the help”, comes from an immigrant family. Her family’s point of origin is mistakenly given on numerous occasions by various Thrombeys for comic effect and we the audience never know the real answer. The Thrombeys refer to Marta as being part of their family and claim that they want to take care of her, but as soon as certain things come to light they immediately turn on her because she is no longer the “good” immigrant or servant in her proper place. Even the more outwardly progressive Meg (Katherine Langford) turns on Marta when her comfortable life is threatened. This builds to the idea, in the latter part of the film, that status, wealth, political ideals mean little in the big scheme of things but being a good person is what truly matters. Marta is simply what the Thrombeys are not.
There are also so many little details in Knives Out that rewards repeat viewings even once you know the solution; those little breadcrumbs leading you to what's in store. Also things like the portrait of Harlan Thrombey subtly changing to reflect certain moods, or Marta’s mum watching Murder, She Wrote, or the curious pieces of set dressing in the house, just little items that are fun to spot. These all go to make this new home release such a treat.
Alongside the movie itself Johnson provides two audio commentaries*, one of which was originally a podcast in-theatre commentary that people could download, deleted scenes, and making of features. Getting to see how they made this film and what went on behind the scenes is something that is almost more fun than the film itself. Almost.
The reason I adore this movie is because above all else Knives Out is a purely enjoyable movie experience, from the curiosity-piquing beginning to the deeply satisfying end. It has all the aspects of murder mysteries that I love whilst also doing new things with them, and above all it tells its story well. It is smart in a way that isn’t preoccupied with making sure that you know that it’s clever. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, it is enjoyable consistently, and after it is over you might find yourself tempted to press play all over again.
The 4K Blu-ray
Lionsgate’s 4K Blu-ray release is a text-book demonstration on how to put together a near perfect package. It’s clear that a lot of thought has been put into how to present one of last year’s best films and it’s hard not to be impressed at the end result.
The 1.85:1 transfer benefits from Dolby Vision on the UHD disc to add an extra layer of depth and looks perfectly 'film-like'. The film was originally shot in digital for the most part and this resulted in a 2K master from which this 4K upscale has been created. Despite it not being native 4K there’s no denying that this is a pin-sharp transfer that looks as close to perfect as we’ve seen. There is a warmth to the picture that makes it feel as far removed from a sterile digital shoot as possible and makes Steve Yedlin’s cinematography truly stand out.
The standard Blu-ray is almost as impressive and given the upscaled nature of the 4K release isn’t that far removed in terms of picture resolution. The lack of Dolby Vision and HDR leads to a slightly less vibrant picture - and when some of the scenes are quite dark and dim this can sometimes result in a picture that has the tiniest hint of murk about it; however if watched in isolation without the 4K to compare this is unnoticeable and no-one who is limited to the Blu-ray should feel short changed. It’s still wonderfully sharp and every scene still looks like a work of art.
The Dolby Atmos track might not be as instantly mind-blowing as some effects laden blockbuster but, again, it’s absolutely brilliant with a surprising amount of action across the whole soundstage. It often feels like you’re within Harlan Thrombey’s house, the atmosphere is palpable and varies as the action moves around each room. The fact that the placement manages to convey the actual feel of each room is astounding marking this out as one of the best audio transfers we’ve heard so far.
The features are evidence of real thought. There is a full suite of material here that is just as enjoyable as the film itself. Even better is the fact that both the 4K UHD Blu-ray and the standard Blu-ray play host to the full set of features so there’s no need to watch the film in full HD to take advantage of the commentary tracks*. None of the extras are in 4K, but that’s not really expected.
The jewel of the extras is the In Theatre commentary by Rian Johnson - it’s absolutely crammed full of information from the start including hidden cameos, casting deliberations and all sorts of useful and interesting snippets. Johnson is an engaging host and it’s impressive that he can carry the commentary alone. Not only that, there’s a second commentary that features Johnson, his long-time cinematographer Steven Yedlin and actor Noah Segan. This is again full of great information and it’s interesting listening to Johnson playing off his co-hosts here. There is a lot more on the photography and shot set-up in this commentary and despite being more technical in some respects there’s enough interaction to prevent this from becoming anything near dry.
In addition, there are a few deleted scenes - each with an optional commentary from Director Johnson. As is often the case it’s nice to have these included but the decisions to cut them from the film were the right ones. The Making a Murder documentary is split up into a number of segments covering everything from the inspiration behind the film, the casting, costume design and everything right through to the final reveals. It’s a surprisingly meaty feature that is far more in-depth than the usual featurette fair. It runs to over 90 minutes in length. Also included is a Cast Q&A featuring all of the main ensemble and Rian Johnson. There’s not a huge amount here that isn’t covered elsewhere but we do find out where everyone involved first got their SAG card - including Jamie Lee Curtis who picked hers up thanks to two lines in Quincy! The Q&A runs to just short of 45 minutes.
The package is rounded off with a couple of other featurettes - Rian Johnson: Planning the Perfect Murder and Ode to the Murder Mystery, and then all of the viral ads and trailers that accompanied the film’s original release.
Knives Out is available now on 4K, Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Download
- 4K Blu-ray
- 4K Blu-ray