DVD review: Knives Out kills it -- in two different ways

Who killed Harlan Thrombey? Better yet, who killed it on the state of politics today, especially in its hypocrisy, by gently skewering all sides? If you missed the star-studded whodunit Knives Out when it played in theaters last fall, you now have a chance to catch up to what you missed. Unless you pay close attention to detail in this often hilarious and always intriguing murder mystery, you’ll miss out on even more.

Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a titan of murder mysteries, the head of an $80 million publishing empire, when he is found dead in his neo-Gothic mansion by the housekeeper. Did he commit suicide, or did someone at his 85th birthday party bump him off? Legendary private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, joyfully employing a Southern accent) reopens the case with the local police on behalf of a client … whose identity is a mystery to him. Was it a member of the family, or was it one of the “help,” as the family members occasionally call them?

Rarely does a whodunit succeed while having such obvious fun with itself. The genre tends to indulge in dramatics more than comedy; the Kenneth Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express is an excellent film but an apt demonstration of this fact. The cast of Knives Out has more fun with this material, as does writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper, The Last Jedi), but with the proper balance. The mystery itself is taken seriously, but the characters’ eccentricities and hypocrisies provide plenty of laughs along the way. At times, it almost appears that Johnson has left the mystery behind, but then a new twist puts it back front and center.

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the big reveal has one of the most, er, unique resolutions in whodunit films. The final shot is an exquisite bookend to the beginning of the film as well, providing a last laugh — on pretty much everyone, as it turns out.

Despite having so many notable stars in the cast, they work very well together as an ensemble. It’s tough to pick out one particular performance over another, but Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) delivers on the critical performance of Marta Cabrera, and Chris Evans turns a black-sheep role into something more nuanced. Everyone’s worth watching, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette. Riki Lindholme doesn’t get much to do but makes the most of it.

Knives Out works splendidly on just the whodunit level, but its commentary on politics is worth noting too. Since that discussion might have to include some mild spoilers, we’ll put it after the rating and the trailer.

Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Knives Out gets a 4:

  • 4 – Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Knives Out is rated PG-13 for language and some blood, but the mild violence isn’t worrisome enough to exclude teenagers or perhaps even a mature adolescent. Younger viewers might not catch all the nuances, but it’s entertaining enough to keep their attention regardless.

And now, for the slight-spoiler discussion of the film’s treatment of politics. Scroll past the trailer … if you dare!

Some mild spoilers follow (you’ve been warned!).

Normally, conservative moviegoers get uneasy when any political debate erupts in a film, and when the family members fight over Donald Trump and immigration, the shields came fully up for me. I worried that I’d bought a film that would — like many other Hollywood films these days — end up lecturing me and acting as a didactic for Tinseltown’s progressive politics. This time, however, I ended up pleasantly surprised by Johnson’s willingness to skewer all sides of a debate.

This centers on Marta, Harlan’s nurse, who was (supposedly? Hmm) the last to see him alive. Marta’s mother came to the US illegally, although Marta was apparently born in the US. This kicks off a (brief) debate about politics that sounds pretty realistic between the older generation of the family, with the younger generation being on the extremes in both directions. It’s not exactly equal time, but it’s generally far more balanced than what we’d expect from most films, especially big-budget productions like Knives Out.

However, that’s not the end it by any stretch. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that despite protestations from all sides of the Thrombey clan that Marta is “one of the family,” it becomes clear that all sides see her as an object of manipulation rather than a person. She gets betrayed by one side, while the other side tries to wheedle her into their control. It becomes apparent that everyone’s only in this for themselves and that their political posturing is a veneer for their self-serving hypocrisy. Johnson’s point is political, but it’s not partisan — and it scores a direct hit, which makes this film worth it just for the witty way in which this plays out.