By Craig Leask
A throwback to the classic whodunit murder mysteries of yesteryear, director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out has successfully resurrected the genre – dead corpse, creepy mansion and a handful of suspects, all with plausible motives.
With an approach reminiscent of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery the basic premise of Knives Out surrounds the murder of Harlan Thrombley (Christopher Plummer) a successful mystery novelist, on the night of his 85th birthday. As the celebration includes his entire dysfunctional and contentious family, they are naturally all suspects and throughout the first 20 minutes of the film it becomes apparent that they all have a motive. Although Thrombley’s death is explained halfway through the 131-minute run time, the cleverly deployed twists and turns brilliantly continue right up to the film’s surprising ending.
In an homage to Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, suave detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is retained by an unknown benefactor to solve the murder. Donning a well-toned Southern drawl and speaking mainly in metaphors, Craig immerses himself in the role and is clearly enjoying the experience. In chasing suspects and digging up clues, Blanc teams up for much of the film with Thrombley’s caregiver Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) with whom he has great chemistry and fun rapport. Interesting side note, she and Craig will be on screen again April 2020 when Armas appears as the new Bond girl opposite Craig’s Bond in No Time to Die.
Aside from the great writing and directing (also Rian Johnson), the true success of the film is found in the brilliant ensemble cast assembled by casting director Mary Vernieu. Reminiscent of movies such as Murder By Death (1976), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and Clue (1985), Knives Out follows the format by pulling together an incredible all-star cast, who are clearly having a great time with the story and their characters.
The cast mainly makes up Thrombey’s shifty, dysfunctional family, a finely collected assortment of personalities who comprise the main suspects. Jamie Lee Curtis knocks it out of the park as Linda, the daughter who doesn’t hold back when she feels challenged. Her philandering husband, Richard Drysdale, is played by Don Johnson. Michael Shannon plays Walt, Thrombey’s son who runs the family’s publishing empire. Toni Collette amusingly submerges herself into the role of Joni, the wife of Thrombey’s predeceased son. Chris Evans, plays Ransom, the playboy/black sheep son of Linda and Richard, who has some of the film’s best lines. And finally, 83-year-old K Callan remarkably plays 85-year-old Christopher Plummer’s mother, who’s age is unknown to the family. She doesn’t have much to say in the film, but is brilliant with her presence, stares and knowing chuckle when the contents of the will are revealed.
As with any well executed film, the setting is as equally important in supporting and understanding the characters as the script. In this case, the Thrombley mansion, secluded in its own lakeside park, is a jumble of dark cornered, richly appointed rooms, crammed by production designer David Crank with an assortment of games, taxidermy animals, weapons, books and eccentric oddities. All created to give a glimpse into the creative mind of the senior Thrombley.
Interior filming took place for the main part at a house called Borderland, the 1912 Ames mansion on the Easton/Sharon line in Massachusetts. The homes second and third floors were created in studios as the actual floors in the house were too cramped to properly allow for cameras and crew. A different mansion is used for the exterior shots, and that location unfortunately has been kept a closely guarded secret by the production team.
To sum up, Rian Johnson has created a delightfully entertaining movie with elaborate settings, a wonderfully complex script full of well-organized plot twists and turns and a great ensemble cast who truly had a blast making the film.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.