‘Knives Out’ Updates and Complicates the Classic Whodunnit (Blu-ray Review)

The whodunnit is far from dead; it’s having a resurgence, with two new Agatha Christie adaptations hitting big screens, and a renewed audience interest in the puzzle box narratives of the Golden Age of detective fiction. But the fun of whodunnits lies not just in the intricate solution to the mystery, but the pleasure of getting there: the idiosyncratic detective, the cast of characters with means, motive, and opportunity, the red herrings, false leads, and final act twists. Thankfully, writer/director Rian Johnson knows this, as he proved in theaters last year with Knives Out, now out on Blu-ray and DVD, a star-packed mystery that recalls the best of Christie and Sayers, but with a refreshing, modern take on the classic whodunnit.

The story, if you don’t already know it, is right out of a Poirot novel: on the night of his eighty-fifth birthday party, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy crime novelist, is found dead with his throat cut. The police initially rule it suicide, but the arrival of private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, having the time of his life) brings the family back together. It seems there’s some doubt that Harlan committed suicide and, naturally, everyone has a motive, from his son Walt (Michael Shannon), whom Harlan recently fired from his position at their publishing company, his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), who’s been cut off from his support, to his grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), who has been cut out of his will. Things get more complicated the deeper Blanc digs, learning about the friendship between Harlan and his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), in whom Harlan often confided.

There is so much good in Knives Out that I don’t want to get into too many details lest I spoil things for those who missed it during its first run in theaters. A second act reveal alters the paradigm of the narrative from a by-the-numbers whodunnit to something altogether more complicated. It’s the sort of shit that Christie would have adored, and Johnson pulls it off without making it seem contrived. The point of the film really isn’t just the mystery, as much fun as that is – it’s watching the actors enjoy themselves, snarking and sniping at each other in increasingly funny, nasty ways; it’s seeing Daniel Craig have more fun than he has since Logan Lucky, and Toni Collette doing her nastiest impression of Gwyneth Paltrow while still managing to be sympathetic (sort of). It’s the bending and eventual breaking of whodunnit tropes, drawing out some of the more problematic aspects of the Golden Age as it morphs into a modern story of privilege, race, and class, without sacrificing the central mystery or its pleasure.

Knives Out is also one of the few mystery movies that’s just as much fun to watch the second or third time as it is the first. This is in part due to Johnson’s breezy, funny script that advances from plot point to plot point without too much pause for breath, and in part due to the obvious glee with which the actors indulge themselves. Throwaway lines and insults abound, and it’s hard to catch every word the first time around. There are so many little elements thrown in for texture, for characterization, and even to suggest who done it, that it’s a thrill to rewatch and look for them.

The Blu-ray release comes with a lineup of the usual suspects (hehe), including some making-of featurettes and a few deleted scenes that flesh out some of the ancillary characters (including what’s going on with Flam and how Walt got his cane) to provide a bit more subplot—and, interestingly, motive. More exciting are the two commentaries from Rian Johnson: one with Johnson, actor Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner), and director of photography Steve Yedlin, the other an “in-theater” commentary with Johnson that includes a cast Q&A. While I was admittedly hoping for some bloopers or perhaps an entire separate movie about Joni and Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) getting together to pull off some high-stakes art heists, these commentaries go a little ways to filling the gap.

The film itself comes alive with color, upstate Gothic, and a gleeful, silent film-esque soundtrack perfectly in keeping with the throwback narrative. Even at second and third viewing, Knives Out remains a pleasure of a film, entertaining, arch, and quietly provoking. If all Johnson only does Benoit Blanc movies for the rest of his career, that’s fine by me.

Knives Out is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

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