Knives Out: a smartphone-era whodunit with a smart pay-off

A murder mystery pastiche with bags of humour, this is more than just Agatha Christie with Wi-Fi.

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The name’s Blanc. Benoit Blanc. And, as played delightfully by Daniel Craig in Knives Out, this Louisiana detective is presiding over a whodunnit in a country mansion. He has received an envelope of cash from an anonymous source along with instructions to join the police investigation into the death of the crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), found in the attic with his throat cut. “Why was I hired?” Blanc wonders aloud. Or, as Craig’s gumbo-thick drawl has it, “Wah was ah hard?”

When he arrives on the scene, his reputation as the last of the gentleman sleuths precedes him. “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” says Harlan’s daughter Joni (Toni Collette). Well, she can’t be expected to devour an entire feature now that she’s a self-care guru with a brand called Flam. (Harlan may be the film’s only corpse but Gwyneth Paltrow, founder of the wacky wellness company Goop, receives a few non-fatal jabs to the ego.)

Ignorance takes many forms in the film, and a paucity of literary knowledge is one of them. When Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow comes up in conversation, and someone confesses to not having read it, Blanc shoots back: “No one has.” It’s ironic that the people living off the profits of Harlan’s books, including his sleek, silver-haired eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), should show not the faintest interest in the written word. Linda’s brother Walt (Michael Shannon), hoping to make a fortune, has long been frustrated by his father’s refusal to countenance screen adaptations. Even when Netflix came knocking, the old man remained resolute.

It’s comforting to find the writer-director Rian Johnson upholding the value of literary heritage, and hardly a surprise from a film-maker whose 2005 debut Brick transposed Dashiell Hammett to a school setting. That high-mindedness feels slightly disingenuous, though, in the case of this picture, which must owe its existence at least in part to the success of Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express, which grossed over $352m. The producers of Knives Out will also have been encouraged by the recent Murder Mystery, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, which attracted 73 million Netflix subscribers in its first four weeks alone. Prising viewing figures out of that streaming service would ordinarily be a job to defeat even Benoit Blanc but, like Donald Trump, the company makes an exception when there’s bragging to be done.

The president looms large in Knives Out. Some family members praise him while others attack his savagery (“We’re putting children in cages!”), or exchange Trump-era insults (“snowflake,” “alt-right troll”). This amounts to an experiment by Johnson to see whether the hammy tone and timeless conventions of the whodunnit can withstand the pressures of localised political detail. He also tests the genre’s classical appeal by adding updated iconography: the grand living room is still lit by a fire in the hearth, just as it might have been in Hercule Poirot’s day, but the flames are joined now by the glow of laptops and smartphones. When the contents of Harlan’s will prove to be less than pleasing, the injured parties rush to Google to search for legal loopholes.

But Knives Out is more than just Agatha Christie with Wi-Fi. Its centre of empathy, and its sole reliable perspective, is provided by the help, Marta (Ana de Armas), who was Harlan’s trusted nurse as well as, apparently, the last person to see him alive. She has the advantage, in this age of fake news, of being unable to lie. Should deceit even begin to stir in her belly, she experiences, as Blanc puts it, “a regurgitative reaction to mistruthing”. In other words, she’s a one-woman puking polygraph.

As well as being a sparky and sympathetic character in her own right, Marta becomes a litmus test for the morality of those around her, just as her broken phone screen with its spider-web splinters (The Mirror Crack’d, indeed) mimics the giant circular sculpture made entirely of knives that has pride of place in the Thrombey mansion. Even the most seemingly compassionate family members resort under pressure to deportation-related threats and insinuations, and the nicest among them can’t be bothered to remember where Marta is from.

In this respect, the picture resembles another modern film with a similar title – the satirical horror Get Out, which also warned that the apparent liberalism of the Obama years was not a transformation of America so much as a smokescreen for the usual intolerance. Like that movie, Knives Out succeeds in smuggling politics under cover of genre-based larks. Johnson throws in every theatrical prop he can think of (invisible ink, magnifying glasses, stage weapons) and ensures that the film is both as amusing as send-ups like Clue or Murder By Death and as robust as any Christie classic. “I keep waiting for the big reveal where it all makes sense,” says Linda at one point. The film has more to offer than a smart pay-off, though when that does come it should leave audiences as open-mouthed as the bear rugs sprawled beneath the Thrombeys’ feet. 

Knives Out (12A)
dir: Rian Johnson

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question