***½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer
written and directed by Rian Johnson
by Bryant Frazer Knives Out, a cleverly plotted and star-studded whodunit, is both comfortingly familiar and surprisingly novel--a loving homage to classic English drawing-room mysteries that celebrates its sources while updating their assumptions about class and politics. It might seem strange that, having scaled the filmmaking Everest that is a Star Wars movie with The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson would immediately retreat into the comfort of an Agatha Christie pastiche. But Knives Out plays directly to Johnson's strengths: his knack for putting a new spin on old tropes and clichés, his facility with actors, and his apparent capacity for empathy. It's a comedy of manners with a marvellously dry wit, exceptionally broad appeal, and a satisfyingly complex (though not convoluted) narrative. No wonder this thing made bank at the box office.
Knives Out pits celebrated detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, sporting an extra-crispy Southern accent similar to the one he deployed in Logan Lucky) against the Thrombeys, a wealthy family built on the literary empire of patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a best-selling mystery writer and self-made millionaire racked by shiftlessness, duplicity, and resentment. Blanc arrives on the scene following the apparent suicide of the elder Thrombey, which he investigates alongside local police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) as a possible case of foul play. And so the first third of Knives Out unfolds in the mode of a Hercule Poirot mystery, as Blanc and the cops interview Thrombey family members about their relationships with the old man, discerning who among them could possibly have had means, motive, and opportunity to do him in.
Could it be youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), who ran dad's publishing business? Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and/or her husband Richard (Don Johnson)? Widowed daughter-in-law and new-age busybody Joni (Toni Colette)? Asshole grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), who skipped the funeral entirely? It's hard to say--all of them act nervous, defensive even, especially when Blanc prods them about recent dust-ups with Harlan. Even grandchildren Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) are at each other's throats in their respective roles as social justice warrior and budding neo-Nazi. Blanc navigates this thicket with the help of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan Thrombey's nurse and confidante, who understands more than she lets on about the family dynamics and who is physically unable to tell a lie. Blanc makes progress quickly--the biggest surprise in Knives Out may be how much is revealed early on--but remains unsatisfied by his findings. There's a second mystery tied to Blanc's mere presence on the scene (his employer paid him with an envelope full of cash sent anonymously), and further complications are revealed during a reading of the decedent's will, presided over by Frank Oz, that hilariously amplifies the bad moods and hard feelings on the Thrombey estate. Frustrated by the missing puzzle pieces, Blanc eventually describes the whole affair as a donut: "a case with a hole in the centre."
Benoit Blanc is to Knives Out what Hercule Poirot is to Murder on the Orient Express, and Daniel Craig's laid-back performance is almost as delicious in its way as Branagh's more aggressively hammy turn as Poirot in his own 2017 film. Blanc isn't unpleasant, exactly, but his manners are a bit off-putting--he seems awkward in his skin--and he enjoys his metaphors. During one conversation, he drags Thomas Pynchon into the scenario by declaring, "I anticipate the terminus of gravity's rainbow." The title of Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow refers to the parabolic trajectory of a projectile arcing through the air until gravity pulls it to the ground. Pynchon's projectile is a metaphor, in Blanc's mind, for the assembled facts in a pending investigation. "I determine the arc's path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet," he explains. (Though at first the line appears to establish only the scope of Blanc's self-regard, I later wondered if he was referring, cryptically, to an important clue he noticed on someone's sneaker--a truth that fell, literally, at his feet.) Craig gets some of the funniest lines, too, as when he describes a typical reading of a will as "a community-theatre production of a tax return." Give Johnson credit for making maybe the best cinematic accounting joke since the sailing of the Crimson Permanent Assurance.
Speaking of Johnson's writing, Knives Out is a master class in elegant exposition. The initial sequence of interviews with the Thrombey family members is a tour de force. We see only short bits of each conversation, snippets that are edited together in ways that reveal information about characters and motives (for example, right after Linda declares to Blanc that she's not "dumb enough" to discuss family business with him, Johnson cuts directly to her dumb-ass husband Richard gleefully taking the bait). As the sequence progresses, the edits become more complex, even incorporating brief flashbacks, but the exposition never feels dense or difficult to parse. Johnson's visual style is mostly straightforward--one shot, one subject--but at certain points he makes good use of depth within the frame You can just make out the amusement on Blanc's face as he looks on when Trooper Wagner (Segan) gushes fannishly over Harlan Thrombey's books. Later, you can see Lakeith Stanfield's investigator, out of focus, reacting with exasperation in the background as Blanc goes off on some new tangent in the foreground. The storytelling isn't entirely crisp--the film's second half includes some scenes set well off of the mansion grounds that start to feel a little woolly, although not enough to derail the proceedings.
It helps a lot that Johnson has feelings about the Thrombey children and grandchildren. He doesn't like them. Any of them. Sure, they seem nice enough as they're introduced, but Johnson quickly highlights their collective lack of accomplishment, their shamelessness, and their latent racism. (At Harlan's birthday party, Marta, a Latina immigrant, is recruited for use as a visual aid in a Trumpian political argument; it's like something from Get Out.) Joni, living on an annual allowance from Harlan, runs a skin-care company that promotes "self-sufficiency." Linda, who was gifted a million-dollar loan from her father, claims, "I built my business from the ground up." And Walt, who seems never to have written an original word in his life, likes to refer to Harlan's best-sellers as "our books," a habit that bugs the elder Thrombey more than Walt can imagine. Despicable as he proves to be, Ransom at least has a sense of perspective where his family is concerned--he doesn't care for them much more than the film does. Still, Knives Out isn't a wallow. Johnson recognizes goodness in the world, and the movie celebrates it where it finds it: in Blanc's ongoing pursuit of truth and justice; in Marta's hard work and professional competence. Old Harlan Thrombey himself appears only in flashbacks, but he comes across as genuinely interested in promoting a just world, and so his death plays as tragedy. Otherwise, Knives Out is an exceptionally entertaining and effective delivery system for schadenfreude. Johnson reserves the final word for Mick Jagger, who croons a fare-thee-well to toxic aristocracy over the end credits: "Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes."
THE 4K UHD DISC
Knives Out lands on Lionsgate UHD BD with a sharp 2160p Dolby Vision transfer preserving eye-watering amounts of detail. The 1.85:1 transfer here is upscaled from a 2K digital cinema master (the film was shot mostly with the ARRI Alexa Mini at 2.8K resolution), demonstrating once again that you can make an exceptional UHD BD without a native 4K master. At the same time, cinematographer Steve Yedlin, ASC, demonstrates that the image captured by a digital camera can be treated to resemble 35mm film with colour transformations and other image-manipulation techniques. In Knives Out, the use of algorithms to generate film grain, halation, and even gate weave contribute to a convincing film look. The production design and set dressing were sumptuous enough in theatrical presentations, but the UHD treatment really lends itself to pausing playback and perusing the multiplicity of items that fill the Thrombey mansion, like the books by Patricia Cornwall, Lawrence Block, and others that line the walls of Harlan Thrombey's study. Colour rendition is impressive, with a range of thick reds and browns dominating the interiors. Skin tones are sometimes pushed towards red/magenta, but that's in keeping with the intended look of the film. Shadow detail is robust--check out the scene where Blanc surprises Marta on the back patio, his facial features faintly visible in the darkness before he emerges into the light. At the other end of the scale, the use of bright highlights is perhaps more subdued than on other HDR titles, though I can't say I miss the extra nits. During one scene, the brightness levels of one camera angle are so much higher than those of the reverse angle (owing, presumably, to the sun's position in the cloudy sky behind the actors) that I found the imbalance a little distracting at every cut. More impressive is the way the extended dynamic range conveys the quality of light in each scene, increasing the sense of depth and making every shot that much more vivid.
The Dolby Atmos track is exceptionally high in fidelity, of course, but as modern soundmixes go, the Knives Out mix is fairly conservative--appropriately so, given the material. While there is some degree of directionality in the sound effects, especially when it comes to things that go thump in the room upstairs (which puts the height channels to good use), the surround field is mostly occupied by composer Nathan Johnson's moody orchestral backdrop. Sometimes the action that takes place away from the Thrombey house opens up the mix a little more, inviting additional low-frequency effects onto the soundstage, but this is unlikely to be anyone's idea of a demo disc for audio.
The UHD BD contains the same impressive load of supplements as the BD, which isn't always the case. Toplining the slate of extras are two different audio commentaries: a traditional yak-track featuring Johnson, DP Steve Yedlin, ASC, and actor Noah Segan, and an "in-theatre commentary" originally recorded by Rian Johnson and distributed via social media for fans to listen to via headphones during movie-theatre screenings. There is some redundancy between the two, if not as much as one would assume. Johnson's "in-theatre" track is generally centred on his observations about the film's script, structure, dialogue, and performances, including a few instances where he second-guesses his own decisions. The three-man yakker contains more anecdotes from the actual production, with the presence of Yedlin and Segan sending Johnson off in different directions. While two commentaries could be too many, they are quite listenable, offering a good mix of information at both the micro and macro levels. Johnson and Yedlin discuss minutiae of the cinematography, like the moment where a polarizing filter was adjusted during a shot to make reflections disappear from a car window while the camera was rolling, or shots where dolly tracks had to be painted out of the scene in post-production, while Segan contributes little bits of colour related to his own role in the film and occasionally questions Johnson about a specific line of dialogue. My favourite story might be the one about Patton Oswalt writing to ask Johnson about the inclusion of "Sundown" by Gordon Lightfoot on the film's soundtrack. "Sundown" was written about Lightfoot's girlfriend at the time, Cathy Smith, and Oswalt wondered if Johnson was deliberately referring to Smith's role in administering the heroin and cocaine injection that killed John Belushi. Johnson's response? "Wow. No."
Next up is Making a Murder (114 mins.), an eight-part documentary running nearly two hours collectively and covering the filmmaking process from pre-production all the way through to release. The individual chapters deal with everything from financing, casting, and costuming to cinematography, editing, music, and sound. Cast and crew interviews are intercut with a wide-ranging array of behind-the-scenes material that encompasses everything from snippets of the actors goofing off, on camera as well as off, to surveillance-style footage of audiences watching test screenings of the film. There's a gratifying amount of technical material, too, aimed at movie nerds and filmmakers, such as a discussion of how Johnson settled on the picture's 1.85:1 aspect ratio and an explanation of the unusual quality of outside lighting in scenes set inside the mansion after dark. (The windows were gelled so that the bright sunshine resembled soft but clear moonlight when seen through the glass, and the scenes were shot day-for-night.) It's so thorough that it even spares a moment to show footage of Johnson, Yedlin, and Segan recording their audio commentary. Yes, 114 minutes is a long time to spend with a making-of doc, but Johnson is a generous host, and the independently-financed Knives Out makes an intriguing case study.
Deleted scenes (two scenes and two snippets totalling 4:57 in length) are presented with optional director's commentary. They include a good scene with Craig and Riki Lindhome, who barely speaks in the finished film, and another with Craig and Collette. Although the material underscored the desperate situations of Joni and Walt, Johnson decided they slowed the pacing of the movie's second half, so onto the cutting-room floor they fell.
A post-screening Q&A (42 mins.) features the director and eight cast members (Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Katherine Langford, and Jaeden Martell) taking questions from VARIETY editor Jenelle Riley in front of a SAG audience. It's not especially informative but it is often funny, and it provides an opportunity to watch a group of actors joking with one another and speaking fairly candidly about their work. At one point, Johnson notes that Craig memorized all of his lines cold for the film's lengthy denouement, in which Blanc explains the whos, hows, and whys behind the whodunit. Craig responds by explaining that his primary concern was avoiding the need to overdub those lines in ADR, where the recordings would differ in performance quality and energy from the dialogue recorded during production. He requested that all of his lines be recorded on set, even when he didn't need to appear on camera. Elsewhere, a typically gruff Shannon explains how he decided whether to take the part: "I took [Rian Johnson] to my local gastropub and we sat there and shot the shit for a little bit. He seemed like a pleasant enough guy, because I don't like to hang out with a bunch of dicks."
"Rian Johnson: Planning the Perfect Murder" (6 mins.) is an interview with Johnson about writing the film, starting with the structuring process where he says he considered the best ways to integrate a Hitchcockian thriller with a traditional murder mystery. And he specifically credits "Columbo" with driving the thought process that led him to reveal so much about the circumstances of Harlan Thrombey's death so early in the film.
Completing the package, an assortment of promotional materials includes an unusual mock film trailer (2 mins.) that begins with Rian Johnson addressing the camera directly to offer audiences "an invitation to murder" in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock. Footage from Knives Out is treated with digital filters to give it an old-timey look, and Johnson eventually growls about "the murder mystery...modernized." There's no explanation of why this was made or how it was used, but I assume it was some web-based marketing emission. The same goes for a set of inessential "Meet the Thrombeys viral ads" (:34, :34, and :56) that mimic TV spots for the film characters' business interests, each identified as "a Knives Out company": Thrombey Real Estate (featuring Jamie Lee Curtis), Flam (with Toni Collette), and Blood Like Wine Publishing (with Michael Shannon). A trio of theatrical trailers for the film (running 2:12, 2:35, and 1:08) rounds out the offerings.
130 minutes; PG-13; UHD: 1.85:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10, BD: 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core), English DVS 2.0, Spanish DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, BD: English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core), English DVS 2.0, Spanish DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-100 + BD-50; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Lionsgate