Puzzle Doctor At The Movies – Knives Out (2019)

Harlan Thrombey, the prolific mystery author, is celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday, surrounded by his loving family. Well, they love his money, that’s for certain. At the end of the evening, Harlan retires to his attic room, up the creaking stairs to bed. And in the morning, he is found dead, his throat cut. Everything points to suicide, from the blood spray down to the fact that nobody was heard approaching his room…

So why has the famous detective Benoit Blanc been hired to investigate Thrombey’s murder? And who hired him? It soon becomes apparent that something is amiss in the household and that virtually every member of the family had a reason to kill him…

You may well have heard of this film, out now in cinemas. Directed by Rian Johnson and with a starry cast including Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer and Chris Evans. And it’s impossible to review in a spoiler-free way.

This is a beautiful homage to the mystery tales of the Golden Age. A mixture of suspects and told with a dash of humour around a razor-sharp plot with clues aplenty – possibly too many. Great performances all round, smartly plotted, and a highly entertaining film – Craig and de Armas in particular are rather wonderful. Definitely go and watch it, it’s no pastiche but a genuine tribute to the genre.

OK, so if you want a bit more detail, in particularly my slight problem with it, read on.

The next bit is going to get vaguely spoilery, but no more than the publicity department and any of the reviews that I’ve read since, but I’m going to leave some space. Here’s Jessie to keep you company for a bit…

… back? OK.

There is a problem with billing the film as a whodunit. The first major plot twist changes the direction of the film completely, making it possibly into a different sort of film. But given that it’s a whodunit… well, while I missed the how, massively over-complicating matters, the who, given one particular clue, was stunningly obvious to me. Like all thrillers with a twist, the ending works best if you aren’t looking for it, but if you are… I am genuinely curious as to how obvious it was to others.

19 comments

  1. I’m not the sort to get ahead of a story, looking for solutions, so there’s that. At the first major plot twist (assuming we’re talking about the same one), I felt “surely that’s not the whole solution?”, but after a minute I stopped worrying about it, feeling that I was in good hands and just going with it and letting it reveal itself in its own time. It was clearly too much fun to ruin by anticipation. Near the end when a piece of physical evidence turned out to be available after all, my mind jumped (correctly) to what it would show, but I still didn’t imagine the whole story behind that.

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  2. I saw this last month and loved it. It has a great sense of humour and Craig in particular is clearly having a whale of a time. I got caught out as I thought that there was an underlying plot engineered by Harlan that I was wrong about. But I didn’t care, had a great time.

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  3. Okay, in honor of being your guest, PD, I’m going to get as vague and non-spoiler-y as I can be! I sort of had the “who” on an instinctive level because that character is so popular in Christie. However, I missed the dying message completely. What I did NOT get until the very end was the whole truth about Harlan’s death. Here’s the thing, though: I deliberately set about trying NOT to play sleuth and just let it flow, kind of like Rinaldo described above . . . and I was all the better for it! Loved the film!

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  4. I haven’t yet seen the film, but plan to do so soon. One thing that thrilled me was that Rian Johnson mentioned John Dickson Carr in one interview I read! Now how often do you see Carr mentioned anywhere nowadays outside of, well, sites like this one? My point is that he’s hardly well-known outside the circle of Golden Age mystery aficionados.

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  5. *spoilers?*

    Thanks for the review, Puzzle Doctor. 🙂 I watched it for my birthday, and was suitably entertained. I think, as you say, the part-way revelation made me think it was an inverted mystery – but the fact that it was billed as a whodunit then made me wonder if there were a serpentine twist coiled beneath the narrative. And since I was looking out for it, I caught onto who the ultimate culprit was.

    In retrospect, I do think the seasoned Golden Age mystery fan would have seen nearly every trope and twist and clue before: the dying message, the additional word uttered by the person at the widow, the positioning of the cameras benefitting not just the apparent culprit but also the actual culprit, even the offhand remark about the theatricality of the knives, etc. Most of all, the choice of culprit was fairly evident, concealed only by the assumption that it was an inverted mystery.

    But it seems to me the movie is seeking to bring the Golden Age mystery to the general public, who is less likely to spot each and every trope. And for that I applaud the movie, and feel inclined to support it. Even trope-spotting for the seasoned GA mystery reader can be fun; I certainly enjoyed the movie in general. 🙂

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      • I had a friend with me, who’s not a golden-age mystery reader. If I recall correctly, he had a sneaking suspicion that there was more to the plot than the mid-way reveal, and was sceptical about certain characters – but wouldn’t have had reasons for these suspicious and scepticisms.

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      • I can tell you that I overheard comments from audience members I was with and they were wholly taken in. The final scene with the failed murder attempt and the sight gag was a huge hit with the audience. I merely smiled knowing what was going to happen based on the line Harlan says much earlier in the movie. But the rest of the audience roared with laughter. It was probably he loudest wave of laughter. Many of them hadn’t a clue about the more obvious references and motifs of murder mysteries. I also heard people making guesses as the film progressed. Murder mysteries of this type are definitely seen as a game opportunity to non-mystery addicts.

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  6. I did guess quite a lot of what was going on, but I am usually quite bad at these things so it just made me feel clever when I got it right. For all that I found it easier to spot clues, I never felt like the film was going *blatant clue here pay attention*.
    But I’d say that
    1) billing the film as a whodunit didn’t detract from it, actually by the time we had the big first twist i had completely forgotten the intro. Plus, it could have been just another way of misdirecting the viewer.
    2) I didn’t find it decreased my enjoyment having guessed some of it – sure, I could guess maybe part of what was going on, but how it was all going to play out in the end was not something I could guess, and so I could still sit back and enjoy the ride. I would agree, if it was a super-serious thriller with uninteresting characters, that shock value has to be maintained, but given that the film knows when not to take itself seriously, it can still surprise you with something comedic, rather than something dramatic.

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  7. Here are my thoughts without giving spoilers. This is a fun movie. If you are looking for a classic whodunit where all the suspects are given equal weight, and there’s a brilliant solution that surprises everybody—this isn’t quite that movie. As Puzzle Doctor stated, there is a plot twist halfway through the movie—which some reviewers have given out too much information about—which alters the tone and direction of the movie. (Alert readers who know about real classic mysteries will suspect a trope that was very common in a lot of John Dickson Carr stories—and they will be right.) But as another reader puts it, once you start to think “That can’t be all it, can it?” they will start to suspect somebody else, and again—they will be right.

    But that doesn’t mean this is a bad mystery. I get a bit annoyed at some mystery books where there is only one real clue pointing towards the bad guy (or gal). I was amazed at the sheer number of clues hiding in plain sight. I’m not talking about fingerprints or bloodstains, but rather offhand remarks that give off important information. Two of these clues are disguised as laugh lines. (One of them is in the trailer.) This is a smart movie that doesn’t try to be TOO smart. This is a good movie that might entice people to actually pick up a classic mystery book or maybe see a mystery film and see if it holds up to this. (Many of them—including a recent one by Kenneth Branagh—don’t.)

    I doubt that there will be a sequel, but I like the character of Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, who is clearly based on Hercule Poirot albeit from the American South. (Some reviewers have identified his accent as Tennessee, although his name suggests he might be from Louisiana.) His Blanc, although at times a comedic foil, is sharp as a tack and doesn’t miss a thing. He’s also just as compassionate as his Belgian counterpart.

    I’m running out of things to say, but there’s one more thing I want to point out. This movie—like the horror film “Ready or Not” which came out in August—is also a biting satire about the rich and their sense of entitlement. I think both films are good for a double feature.

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