Starring Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon. Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell
Written by Rian Johnson
Directed by Rian Johnson
Produced by Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman
Cinematography by Steve Yedlin
Edited by Bob Ducsay
Music by Nathan Johnson
A major hurdle for any mystery-suspense who-dun-it thriller released during the past 35 years–really–is living up to one of the major classics of the genre, Sidney Lumet’s classic, stylish, classy–and thoroughly engaging, suspenseful, mysterious, smart, funny and entertaining–gold standard from 1974, “Murder on the Orient Express.” Yes, yes, of course, there’s been hundreds, nay, thousands of mystery-suspense who-dun-it thrillers released in film, television and in books during the last 34 years, and surely a couple of them have matched or exceeded one particular film? Yes, or perhaps, of course, but nevertheless, Lumet and his stellar, talented cast and crew succeeded at such a high level in this genre, that original “Murder on the Orient Express” does indeed still stand, today, in 2019, as the high bar challenge for all others in the genre to reach or exceed.
Just in case you’ve forgotten–but you shouldn’t–that film was directed by Lumet; the screenplay was by Paul Dehn, of course adapted from the classic book by Agatha Christie, and Dehn also wrote “Goldfinger,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “The Deadly Affair,” and he co-wrote four of the “Planet of the Apes” sequels; the cinematography was by Geoffrey Unsworth, who also manned the cameras for Richard Donner’s classic “Superman” and “Cabaret” and “2001: A Space Odyssey;” the musical score was by Richard Rodney Bennett; the film was edited by Anne V. Coates, who also edited “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Becket” and “The Elephant Man;” and–are you ready–the film starred Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, and Michael York.
“Murder on the Orient Express” was nominated for six Academy Awards–all deserving nominations all deserving of wins–and Ingrid Bergman deservedly won for Best Supporting Actress.
The movie was also a huge popular, commercial and critical success. Everyone loved it–again, deservedly so.
See what we mean? When a once-in-a-lifetime golden-era, instant-classic film succeeds on such a high level, films that follow in that respective do strive to live up that film and other classics in the genre. It’s just reality. Think about how many fantasy and musical and bedtime story films and televisions have existed in the shadow of “The Wizard of Oz”–which was released in 1939, eighty years ago. Civil war dramas are still compared to “Gone With the Wind”–which was also released in 1939. Every Christmas movie has been compared to “It’s A Wonderful Life”–from 1946. Costume dramas–“Ben Hur,” from 1959. Psychological horror thrillers–“Psycho,” from 1960. And on and on. Of course, one could argue that thousands of films have equaled or surpassed all of these films–including “Murder on the Orient Express”–and that’s a fair argument. However, it is a fact that, still, some films just simply make their everlasting mark on a genre, and most of the time, that mark is well-deserved.
Thus, it’s encouraging, positive and happy to report that the new mystery-suspense who-dun-it thriller “Knives Out” is indeed a wonderful, funny, engaging, stylish, classy, smart, suspenseful–and aptly, consistently mysterious and suspenseful–addition to the mystery film genre. This movie is the perfect entertaining, fun movie release for the long Thanksgiving weekend this year (the movie opens nationwide on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019) and for the holiday season, too! “Knives Out” should appeal to most audiences, from smart teens who appreciate a good mystery on up to people of all types and all ages. There’s some adult cussing, some adult themes and some very adult attitudes, characters and situations, and the movie has a modern, cynical, sarcastic, edgy mood and atmosphere–but the film is also funny, smart, engaging, stylish and suspenseful enough so that those modern-day edgy elements are equally, appropriately–and welcomingly–smoothed out enough so that the film is enjoyable.
Also, along those lines, just about every character in the film–except three good-guy, positive, well-meaning cops and detectives–is horrendously unlikeable. But–that’s good here. Because you cannot have a strong mystery thriller without a cast of red-herring, questionable, suspect hateable characters! In a mystery, you need unlikeable characters because you need suspects to question, hate, despise, wonder about–and root against. That, of course, is part of the fun of watching any mystery thriller–wondering just who among this cast of rotten eggs is the guilty egg. And “Knives Out” director, writer and co-producer Rian Johnson understands this, completely. Within the first few minutes of “Knives Out”–and this gives absolutely nothing away, and thus this is decidedly not a spoiler–Johnson introduces a terribly awful house full of despicable, terrifyingly hateful and unlikeable morons and idiots, most of them members of the same soiled, troubled family of cretins.
And with that, the fun–and the movie is indeed fun–begins.
These horrible people are introduced as they are being questioned by the immensely likeable–even lovable– detective Benoit Blanc–played stupendously, amazingly and hilariously by the movie-stealing, scene-stealing, dialogue-stealing and performance-stealing Daniel Craig, in one of the best performances of his career, really–in the wake of the death of the family patriarch, Harlan Thrombey. Thrombey mysteriously, and strangely, turns up dead on the night of his 85th birthday–that’s not giving anything away, either, as that occurs, also, in the first few minutes of the film. Was Harlan murdered by one of the family cretins? Was Harlan murdered by someone else? Was he murdered at all? Did he commit suicide? How, exactly, did he die, though, even if it was suicide? Just how, precisely, did Harlan Thrombey die on his 85th birthday, and who, if anyone at all, was responsible?
These classic murder mystery questions hover entertainingly, mysteriously, suspensefully and even joyfully–joyfully, due to the film’s ever-present humor, aided by the talented comedy chops of the film’s extensive cast–throughout “Knives Out” from start to finish. As in all high-quality mysteries, everyone’s a suspect, it’s not clear at all who did what or how or why or by who or whom, it’s not entirely clear what prompted or led to anything, everyone’s a suspect, there’s plenty of twists and turns, everyone has a motive, and all of the red herrings, omens, hints, and aforementioned twists and turns are mysterious enough that no one should be able to figure things out until, appropriately, the final act, which is how it should be.
Thus, “Knives Out” does indeed succeed in living up to the grand mystery tradition and quality of Lumet’s classic “Murder on the Orient Express.” “Knives” isn’t as good as that film, and it’s quite different, and it’s quite modern, but thanks to Johnson’s smart story, excellent dramatic and comedy acting from the all-star cast, Johnson’s controlled, confident and tight direction, and a production design, set design and art direction that instill a high level of style and class to the overall look of the movie, “Knives Out” is a class production. Much of that quality production design, set design and art direction are due to the exquisite design, look, mood and feel of the film’s central location, Thrombey’s beautiful, classy lakeside home, a richly wood-paneled, somewhat-Gothic, somewhat-country-estate mansion that, of course, is as much a character as the real-life people characters. The house used for the film–its exteriors and interiors–is simply beautiful. And the house is equally beautifully decorated and designed throughout all the rooms. Many murder mysteries need, and benefit from, such beautiful houses, as they can add to the overall mysterious mood and atmosphere.
The less said about the main story in “Knives Out” is best–moviegoers need to experience the story, plot and character aspects themselves as the story unfolds. It’s good enough to note that the story, plot and characters are all engaging, entertaining, smart, funny, classy, mysterious and suspenseful, as noted.
And that cast! The always-great Christopher Plummer carries the movie as Thrombey–even though the character dies early and appears in flashbacks throughout. No one else in the movie, simply, has the style, presence, charisma–and acting ability–as Plummer. Plummer carries this movie, and his casting as Thrombey was one of many smart decisions by Johnson. Not everyone is great, though, in the cast, and some younger actors simply don’t hold up–especially when they’re on screen with Plummer. However, overall, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson (in one of his better performances in his career), Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and K Callan also help carry this movie. All deserve high compliments for, again, playing generally horrible, terrible, awful, unlikeable–and annoying–pampered, spoiled cretins.
“Knives Out,” besides invoking the spirit and classiness and style of Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” also pays homage to other mystery stalwarts as Agatha Christie and Angela Lansbury’s Christie-like “Murder, She Wrote” television series. And Johnson, again, knows his influences–there are hints of Christie-isms dropped here and there, and there’s even a homage clip of “Murder, She Wrote” included in the film. Johnson has written, directed and co-produced a strong murder mystery suspense who-dun-it thriller–but he’s also smart enough to honor, pay respect to, and pay homage to his many influences and predecessors.
And, it’s a high compliment indeed, but Sidney Lumet, Agatha Christie and Angela Lansbury would all likely enjoy “Knives Out”–and they would likely, just like the rest of us, appreciate the elaborate web of mystery that Johnson has so cleverly and entertainingly spun for everyone this Thanksgiving and holiday season.