The greatest mysteries tend to have simple, even prosaic explanations: motives can mostly be distilled down to love or/of money.
In Rian Johnson’s traditional murder-mystery, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is rich and lonely, with a huge grasping family so used to him paying for them that they’ve forgotten that he doesn’t have to (though he hasn’t).
Never able to stop playing games, his relationships with his offspring have been defined by how well they can play by his rules. He hires Marta (Ana de Armas) to be his nurse but she’s as much a friend and companion, playing board games with him in his attic study.
He hates his 85th birthday party, filled with his children, in-laws, grandkids and ageing mother Greatnanna Wanetta (a scene-stealing and silent K Callan). It ends with family black sheep Ransom (Chris Evans) storming out after a money-related meeting with grandpa.
Harlan, writer of hugely successful mystery novels, retires to his study to play Go and receive his pre-bedtime medication from Marta. The next day he’s found with his throat cut, an apparent suicide, but the supposedly easy-to-close case is soon blown open when esteemed private detective Benoit Blanc (a deliciously drawling Daniel Craig) arrives at the house.
Knives Out may take a little while to get going but it’s still tightly wound and exceptionally well-structured. And once it does get going, it steadily plays out to provide maximum laughs, clues, and wtf moments at the family’s awful antics.
And in this ensemble piece of excellent performances, biting social commentary and vicious humour, de Armas is exceptional, always the blazing light at the centre of the game board.
In a film stuffed with did he / didn’t she, there are at least two areas of certainty: Marta will vomit whenever she hears or speaks a lie, and every member of the Thrombey family under the age of 85 is awful.
Even the *nice* ones turn out to be grasping and greedy, ignoring their good fortune at being born or married into good fortune while claiming they made it “from the ground up”. Later, as they see their money being snatched away from them, birthright is very much their main argument as to why they should retain it.
Granted, Joni (Toni Collette) at least veers to the liberal side politically, unlike some of the others who use youngest family member Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell), an alt-right Nazi troll, as a comparator to make their own unpleasant views on class and immigration more palatable. But even Joni is out for what she can get from her late husband’s father Harlan, screwing him over on the school fees he’s agreed to pay for her teenage daughter Meg.
It takes Marta the young, kind-hearted caregiver from Ecuador, to be the disruptor in their seething mire of self-aggrandisement – holding up a mirror to their behaviour that they don’t even notice.
Marta moves from pawn used to make the Thrombeys feel better (she’s one of the family, they say, until it looks like she really might overtake them), before changing circumstances give her the only power they understand and she’s able to stand up to their threats to tell the authorities about her mother, an undocumented immigrant.
Nearly everyone in the family is on the make and nearly all have a motive for getting rid of the Thrombey patriarch. And with family members increasingly skittish as Blanc and Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) fire endless questions at them, the will-reading (described by Blanc as “a community theatre production of a tax return”) is like a bomb going off.
Blanc – “the last of the gentlemen sleuths” – is a slightly downgraded Poirot, mixing his aphorisms, and his feelings (usually laid back, he’s also prone to occasional bursts of emotion), and bemused himself as to why he’s there. Who hired him? Only one person knows and it isn’t Benoit.
He takes a shine to the kindly, nervous Marta, asking her to be Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. For Blanc, she’s both a human lie detector and a beacon of selflessness, proof to the jaded detective that not everyone in a murder case is awful.
The setting is an ugly gothic house, gaudy red brick with flying turrets. “The guy practically lives in a Clue board” says Elliott of Harlan. There’s wood panelling and plenty of heavy ornaments, should a butler ever wish to murder a passing Miss Scarlett in the library with a candlestick. Though the idea of an ancient Thrombey family seat is also fake.
The house adds to the sense that this is a stage play, a murder mystery but also a farce, with people running upstairs in the background while distracting arguments happen out front. (Or maybe it’s Collette’s dolls house from Hereditary.)
The farcical aspect and stagey set-up is reminiscent of 1980s cult favourite Clue. Like that ensemble, suspects move together to act as a team when their interests coincide, separating when they decide it’s every suspect for themselves. Marta is like a magnet, repelling then attracting their interest.
Rian Johnson’s film is a hilarious and horrifying indictment of the elite’s ability to hold on to money and privilege no matter how dim they might be, with greed and covetousness so ingrained they’ve become reflex actions. So recognisable are these behaviours that as soon as Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) mentions her self-built empire we know it was done with her dad’s money. (Curtis is fabulous, oozing aloof self-congratulation before cracking in rage.)
Johnson’s magnifying glass focus on class reminded me of classic Agatha Christies; and many English mysteries include a mousy young woman, never accepted by the privileged family at the heart of the story (in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca she doesn’t even have a name).
Everyone dresses exactly as they should in the game. Linda is every inch the steely business woman in her red jumpsuit. Joni, a cut-price Gwyneth Paltrow who fancies herself an influencer, glides around in neutral satin and chiffon, honey-blonde hair casually waved. Marta is stuck in sensible jumpers, sensible trousers and a frumpy lilac acrylic cardigan, invisible until needed. And Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Harlan’s publishing arm, looks exactly like he’s in publishing, only rich.
Ransom may be a perky schemer but he looks dulled, with the pallor of the rich but unhealthy. A young man from a wealthy family, he could blend in anywhere if he didn’t insist on loudly telling his family to “eat shit”. I can’t even remember what young Jacob was wearing but I’m imagining him dressed like a teenage Jacob Rees-Mogg.
In an ensemble piece with this many characters, and so many great actors (I haven’t even mentioned Don Johnson as Richard, Linda’s bitter, kept husband), we’re often left wanting more: of Lt Elliott; the hustling Joni (the only family member I felt for despite her misdeeds); and even the great detective himself.
There’s no huge “wow” after the big reveal. With whodunnits it’s often the process of the denouement – with the famous detective revealing his findings, complete with flashbacks and a tremendous self-satisfied flourish – that we’re really there for.
Still, before the movie there’s a plea from Johnson not to spoiler whodidit, and I’d be a mug to ignore that request.
Watch the trailer and scroll down for character posters: