Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like Broadchurch, Happy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.
And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders.
Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.
Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?
There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.
Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.
The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.
Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.
And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.
Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.
Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.
But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.
Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.
A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.