This year’s Oscars (2020) was perhaps one of the toughest for the jury in terms of choosing the best among excellent films in the category of Original Screenplay. Each of the nominees were spearheading innovation in different genres of films. The films dealt with interpersonal relationships ( Marraige Story ), societal pressures ( Parasite ), the subject of war and turmoil ( 1917 ), the Charles Manson murders and emergence of spaghetti westerns ( Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ) and a twisted crime scene investigation ( Knives Out ). The crime mystery genre has evolved over the years in terms of extrapolation of events, investigation of the evidence, mixing the timelines, and following clues.
Absorbing a crime-mystery thriller is like walking through a dense rainforest. There is a common thread to every crime mystery story. Usually, there is a dead person and we often follow a series of events which walk us through a maze of clues, circles of suspicion and various sensorial cues. Our perspectives are built using our past experiences of reading thriller books or films. A James Hadley Chase book makes us journey through a web of character developments and incidents that trigger a cyclone of events. On the other hand, an author like Agatha Christie internalizes the mystery by placing the reader directly into the crime scene by describing clues, leading us into a detailed crime scene investigation. Arthur Conan Doyle externalizes a similar experience through the persona of Sherlock Holmes, with his peculiar mannerisms and quirky methods. In cinema, the genre of mystery thrillers have been explored in extensive ways by directors like Hitchcock, Jacques Turnuer through unusual methods of character introduction, narrative intersections and plot dissection.
Rian Johnson manages to coalesce these various interpretations of crime-mystery and transmute them to a unique form in his latest directorial venture, Knives Out (2019). Knives Out is set in the huge cosy mansion of Harlan Thrombey in the middle of a cold mountainous region with winter trees growing old with grace. The music composer, Nathan Johnson, introduces the historical, heritage-rich setting of the home and its interiors, through western classical music reminiscent of the Renaissance period. In a classic opening sequence of the movie, the housekeeper, Fran (played by Edi Patterson), gasps upon finding Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer), dead in his private room following the night of his 85th birthday party.
All members of the family are summoned for questioning by a group of detectives, led by the suave Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig), a man who has a repertoire of solving impossible crime scenarios with his lukewarm vigour. Each of the suspects are related in some way to Harlan Thrombey, a rich business man and a prolific mystery writer who is generous with money but also has a skill of knowing people of heart and sensing greed or jealousy.
Rian Johnson with the editor, Bob Ducsay, brings to the fore a smart modern style of editing interrogative sessions, where the pieces of evidence are conveyed through questions coming from the detective on one end and the answers coming out from a different suspect, each time adding a new flavour to the existing sequence of events. A cloudy, hazy narrative of a sequence develops, as described by each member of the household.
The assistant detective listens to the suspects while Benoit Blanc, sits calmly next to a piano keenly digesting these pieces of talk, absorbing the flavour of their behaviours like a wine-taster taking a whiff at his glass of evidence. Blanc is placed out of focus in these initial scenes. Each time the narrative risks dilution with a potential lie from the suspects, Daniel Craig taps a sharp note on the grand piano like a gong of a conscience clock. The crime scene is sculpted like fragments being pasted together into a collage. Neither on the side of conclusion nor on the side of complete dismissal, the audience is personified in this piano sitting in the interrogation room.
Finally, we are introduced to Marta Cabrera (played by Ana De Armas), Harlan’s most favourite companion and housekeeper who gives him his medications and plays board games with him, particularly good at “Go”. A subsequent peek into Marta’s conscience and a recollection of events on the night of the alleged ‘suicide’ of Harlan Thrombey places us into a different thread of the same quilt of events. The repetitive style of the different POV angles of the same event are reminiscent of Run Lola Run (1998) and Amores Perros (2000).
What follows in Marta’s narrative shifts our suspicions in fascinating and shocking ways. Wanetta "Great Nana" Thrombey (played by K. Callan), Harlan’s elderly mother, who sits at the door uttering no words, lost in thought, eating her cake and keenly observing each person’s behaviour with her loving, yet eagle-sharp eyes, wins our hearts during the reconstruction of the party night. She shares her personality closely with Benoit Blanc. Both of them are passive observers of the truth and speak when spoken to, except that the Great Nana speaks only through her eyes.
The southern accent on Daniel Craig blends magnificently with the observant and truth loving personality of the curious character of Benoit Blanc. Daniel Craig embodies a vulnerable yet strong personality, slowly chewing on to his thoughts, speaking when the time is right and focussing a carefully concentrated throw of each word like a golfer timing his last putt to precision.
Music binds us to the plot between layers of unrest, suspicion and mood changes. The mood board has a variety of colors like humour, pain, shock, anger, fear, greed, jealousy, each of which can be vividly explored musically due to the vibrancy of the script. One way of perceiving the genre of jazz music is that it is a study in arrangement of notes, chords and percussion in unusual routes, often dismissing the obvious and the dominant, in a family of scales or time signatures. Jazz is intimately analogous to a carefully tailored mystery story where the notes can be events, the scale can be each person’s narrative and each person can be an instrument having different timbres.
Benoit Blanc is finally able to notice the hole in the ‘donut hole’ within the donut, while the musical flourish of the accentuated snares unleash the ‘final reveal’ with style and vigour.
Benoit Blanc resembles a patient percussionist, accompanying the noisy trumpet sections, the Thrombey family members, while they swim in their lies and greed, eccentric in their volume and rhythm.
Great Nana is the pianist, playing her intricate notes softly keenly observing the percussionist. Marta resembles the nervous singer singing out her heart, pausing at times of chaotic instrumental invasion. The cast resembles a jazz ensemble coming out of a different tunnel at the end of each song.
We as an audience, are invited to solve the mystery as a community of ‘crowd’ detectives, inspired to speculate and investigate alongside Benoit Blanc. The theatre is filled with murmurs of people's anticipations, theories and gut feelings. The rigorously nurtured interpretation of a refined, distilled and detailed script transcends the experience of reading a novel to a participative multi-sensorial experience with the characters of a tightly knit plot.