The whodunit is, of course, synonymous with the prolific and unrivaled crime writer Agatha Christie. It’s believed, however, to have been born when Edgar Allan Poe committed his short story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ to paper way back in 1841.
Then, in the early twentieth century, a period that would later be known as the Golden Age of detective fiction kicked in, with Christie at the forefront. It was a time in which crime fiction revelled in withholding the antagonist’s identity from its audience until the very last moments.
So this particular variety of crime writing has more than a little history. Yet its popularity would wane somewhat over time.
The humble whodunit certainly hasn’t been a huge favourite with Hollywood of late. But with Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot films and now Knives Out, it could be seeing a resurgence – and not just on the big screen. The popularity of screenwriter Sarah Phelps’s work in recent years for the BBC (on Agatha Christie adaptations of And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence and The ABC Murders) has shown that there’s an appetite for it from audiences.
Writer and director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) takes on the genre here in as full-blooded and enthusiastic a manner as possible. The man clearly knows his detective fiction, and he’s embraced everything about the whodunit here in his latest film, Knives Out. This is seriously old school in form and style, and a thoroughly welcome addition to cinema listings.
Johnson’s cited some of his influences on Knives Out and there are some big-hitting books and movies on his list, such as Murder by Death, Death on the Nile, Gosford Park and Something’s Afoot. Fans of the genre will notice almost constant references throughout. There’s reverence, but thankfully the thing never once steps into parody territory. It plays things – mostly – pretty straight.
The film has some cast too. To put it mildly. It stars, amongst others, Ana De Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Michael Shannon. There’s quite the ensemble.
It opened on Thanksgiving weekend to rave reviews, entertained crowds and an impressive worldwide box office of more than $70m, which puts it up there in terms of the year’s biggest openings – albeit still way behind 2019’s most dominant cinematic force, Joker.
Knives Out and Joker share more than just truckloads of money in common. Both have rather than less than subtle – although not distracting or unwelcome – messages about class warfare. Here, the issue of inherited privilege and immigration play out in the background as the main storyline unfolds.
The politicising doesn’t stick in the craw at any point, though. In fact, it’s actually quite fitting, given our Agatha wasn’t averse to a little social commentary in her work, either.
You’d be forgiven for assuming, from the film’s marketing, that this whodunit was a meta subversion of the genre. Or even a spoof. The truth is somewhat less self-regarding. Rian Johnson clearly loves Agatha Christie’s books and movies and feels no need to satirise or lampoon the whodunit. He just fancied making one of his own.
That said, the film is something of an homage to the murder mysteries of yesteryear. One that’s very much aware of the tropes of its peers, but instead of pointing at them and then winking at the audience, it firmly embraces them.
Let us count the ways…
The majority of the action takes place in an old country pile somewhere in New England. As it’s a whodunit, something needs to have been dun.. a murder, usually. And so it goes here.
The morning after his 85th birthday party, successful crime fiction writer Hartan Thrombley (Plummer) is found dead by way of an apparent suicide. Called in to make sure everything is in order (which, of course, it is not…) are a local detective (Stanfield), a state trooper (Noah Segan) and a flamboyant, tweed-wearing, cigar-smoking Cajun private investigator called Benoit Blanc (Craig).
Their job is to interview all of Harlan’s relatives and snuffle out the truffle that is the murderer. They soon discover that almost everyone had a motive to end the old fella’s life. It’s up to the three detectives (well, Benny Blanc aka ‘CSI:KFC’) to get to the truth.
The true beauty here lies in the script. It’s as sharp as the various knives on show. In fact, there are significantly more laugh-out-loud moments here than in most full-on comedy movies. The writing is excellent throughout and raises the piece above your regular Sunday night TV crime drama treat. As do the cast.
Ana de Armas is very good as Marta, perhaps the only normal person involved in the investigation. With her at the film’s core, the supporting cast are allowed an opportunity to shine. Daniel Craig, Toni Collette and Chris Evans are particularly entertaining (listen out for gems from Craig’s Blanc involving doughnut holes and the readability of Thomas Pynchon’s work).
Ultimately, Knives Out is a decent film. And a more than passable whodunit. Is it quite as clever as it thinks it is? Perhaps not. Is the big reveal at the end quite as smart as it might have been? Almost certainly not. Is it still an enjoyable way to spend two hours? Absolutely.
So, then. Central to it all is one rather obvious question… If they all had their knives out for the deceased, then which of the suspects actually killed Harlan Thrombley?
Well, we’re not going to tell you, are we? You’ll have to work out yourself who dun it.
There you have it – our Knives Out review. Have you seen the film yet? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!