Release Date(s)2019 (February 25, 2020)
Studio(s)Media Rights Capital/T-Street (Lionsgate)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a renowned and wealthy crime novelist… and he’s just been found dead, not long after celebrating his 85th birthday. His entitled and eclectic family includes his eldest daughter—a real estate mogul—and her husband (Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), a younger daughter who leads a Goop-like lifestyle brand (Toni Collette), his eldest son who runs Harlan’s publishing empire (Michael Shannon), and his youngest son, a spoiled playboy (Chris Evans) who seems to both relish and disdain wealth. But the person closest to Harlan was his caregiver (Ana de Armas). When the police investigate Harlan’s death, all of them and more are interviewed, and it appears to be a straightforward case of suicide. But there’s a great deal of money at stake, as the family members vie for their inheritance. And someone has hired a private investigator to get involved, the famed Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who suspects that things are more complicated and sinister than they appear. Like a hound dog with a bone, Blanc will stop at nothing to uncover the truth, wherever it might lead.
What a pleasure Knives Out is! Inspired by classic Agatha Christie novels, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and even the old Colombo TV series, director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has crafted a modern take on the classic Whodunnit? genre, a suspenseful murder mystery that’s strongly character driven and yet—in spirit—a comedy as well. The heart of the film is a pair of tremendous acting performances, one by Daniel Craig (he of James Bond fame) as the Southern gentlemen sleuth (with a perfect Shelby Foote accent) and another by Ana de Armas (Joi from Blade Runner: 2049) as Harlan’s earnest caregiver and a woman of confident vulnerability, both showing surprising new dimensions on screen. They’re backed by a flawless supporting cast that includes Evans, Curtis, Shannon, Johnson, and Collette, not to mention Lakeith Stanfield, Frank Oz, and Plummer, each of whom has rarely been better. Traditionally, a film like this would rely on the gimmick of keeping the audience in the dark, letting them compete with the sleuth to solve the murder. In this case, Johnson does something different with the story, which wouldn’t work unless the audience is completely invested in the characters. But invested you are, so the viewing experience is a delight—and not just the first time. Knives Out actually rewards repeat viewings too. The film is a gem and one of my favorites of 2019.
Knives Out was shot digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (at 3.4K and 5.1K for one shot) using Arri Alexa (Mini & 65) and Panavision PSR cameras. It was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, upsampled and graded for high dynamic range (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are available here and the DV has the clear edge—that extra bit depth really enhances the colors). The resulting image shows off Steve Yedlin’s striking cinematography well, and is greatly enhanced by the larger frame, evocative lighting, and rich color palette. Fine detail and texturing are lovely, and you can see it nearly everywhere in carpets, wallpaper, textiles, skin tones, and costume knitwear. Grain and even a bit of gate weave has been added to the digital image to simulate the photochemical look. Even the coloring has a filmic appearance—it’s vibrant and natural looking, warm in certain scenes and richly-cool in others (especially in the Thrombey’s estate). Much of the film was shot in low and natural light, yet the shadows have impressive detail and the highlights have a luminous glare. This is a gorgeous looking image and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s actually a 4K photochemical film scan.
Primary audio on the 4K is offered in a fine English Dolby Atmos mix that’s certainly not bombastic or thrill-a-minute, but is showy in more subtle ways. The film’s opening staccato strings have a full, rich total quality, with lovely decay. Music cues flow in from seemingly every corner of the listening space (including the height channels), yet dialogue remains clean and natural. For a character drama, the soundstage feels as large and carefully layered as the 1.85 image. There’s a genuine sense of scale and ambience here—the Thrombey’s library has a spacious quality, while Harlan’s attic study feels more intimate and closed in. Subtle audio cues abound, while panning and movement are playful, even clever. This is an exquisitely well crafted sound mix. There’s a flashback moment (during Meg’s interview with the detectives) where you hear Jamie Lee Curtis’s voice coming almost from your direct left and then she pans through the front right and into the center channel as she appears on screen. Meanwhile, party chatter is filtering in from elsewhere. Also nifty is a sequence in which the detectives lay out a timeline of the murder based who was heard going up the stairs to Harlan’s study (again, the height channels play a key role). There’s a lot going on here sonically and the mixing is so effective you don’t even notice it—until you do (and then you can’t help but be impressed). English Descriptive Audio is also available, as are French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Lionsgate’s 4K release actually packs a TON of extras, found on both the Ultra HD disc and the movie Blu-ray in the package. They include:
- Audio Commentary with writer/director Rian Johnson, director of photography Steve Yedlin, and actor Noah Segan
- In-Theater Commentary with Rian Johnson
- Deleted Scenes (2 scenes with optional commentary – HD – 4:57 in all)
- Making a Murder – Premeditation: Inspirations & Origin (HD – 11:55)
- Making a Murder – Gathering the Suspects: The Cast (HD – 19:29)
- Making a Murder – Dressed to Kill: Costume Design (HD – 8:19)
- Making a Murder – The Scene of the Crime: Production & Design (HD – 13:05)
- Making a Murder – Visual Clues: Cinematography (HD – 11:51)
- Making a Murder – Putting the Clues Together: Editing (HD – 12:35)
- Making a Murder – Music to Kill For: Music & Sound (HD – 24:40)
- Making a Murder – Denouement: Whodunnit? (HD – 11:32)
- Rian Johnson: Planning the Perfect Murder (HD – 6:17)
- Director and Cast Q&A (HD – 42:09)
- Marketing Gallery: Teaser Trailer (HD – 2:12)
- Marketing Gallery: Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:35)
- Marketing Gallery: Final Trailer (HD – 1:08)
- Ode to the Murder Mystery (HD – 1:43)
- Meet the Thrombeys Viral Ad: Thrombey Real Estate (HD – :34)
- Meet the Thrombeys Viral Ad: Blood Like Wine Publishing (HD – :56)
- Meet the Thrombeys Viral Ad: Flam (HD – :34)
Note that the 4K menus have HDR, but the actual special features are all in 1080p HD and SDR.
Now, let me just say something right up front, because it’s important. If you take nothing else from this review, here’s the key point: This is arguably the best single-film special edition for a new release movie that I’ve seen since probably Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And I’m proud as hell to say that it’s been created by a good friend, Cliff Stephenson—and I’d be singing his praises here even if I didn’t know Cliff personally.
Let’s start with the audio commentaries; the first includes Johnson joined by his longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin and actor Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner, who has appeared in many of Johnson’s films). They essentially watch the film together—Johnson keeps the track moving and the other two chime in here and there, turning it into an easy conversation between friends. The In-Theater Commentary is just the director, but he’s much more focused on story, the production, key aspects of each scene, etc. It’s a more detailed track about the process of making this film, so the two commentaries complement each other nicely. BTW, if you’re wondering why there’s an In-Theater Commentary, it’s something Johnson himself released back in December—the idea is that you could load it up on your mobile device and listen to it in theaters with your headphones on while watching the movie. (Johnson did this for The Brothers Bloom and Looper as well.)
Making a Murder is a feature-length documentary that runs 114 minutes in all, and it’s paced such that the material can actually breathe, without ever dragging or feeling like you’re just being fed generic EPK content. And the operative word here is thoughtful; Johnson and his cast and crew all get the opportunity to chime in with interesting insights. You learn how the idea for the film germinated and how the project came together. Time is spent on the casting, the writing, the cinematography, the production design, the costuming, the editing process, even the sound and music. Johnson seems to be building a crew of regulars he likes to work with, including Yedlin, producer Ram Bergman, editor Bob Ducsay, composer Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin, who also scored Brick and Looper), and now Ren Klyce, Al Nelson, and the mixing team at Skywalker Sound—all of them get to offer their perspectives. I mean, there’s a whole segment here where Bergman, Yedlin, and Johnson talk about the difference between shooting on film vs digital. Knives Out is Johnson’s first all-digital production and he was convinced to do it because Yedlin proved to him that there’s no difference now in quality between digital capture vs film. What really matters instead is how you light your subject and particularly how you handle your post-production chain—the color management, color science, and workflow. At one point, Johnson opines: “Steve’s argument—which I have a hard time finding fault with—is the instant you say the thing I’m shooting on is the thing that defines the look [of the film], and not my creative choices—the instant you say that, you’re turning yourself from an artist into a consumer.” It’s fascinating content and exactly the kind thing I want from a great making-of documentary.
You also get a couple of deleted scenes—actually more like scene extensions—along with another featurette on how Johnson plotted and structured the film, a cast & crew Q&A, and a marketing gallery of trailers and TV spots for the film. This is just one of those meaty, take-your-time bonus content experiences that I long for but so rarely get on disc anymore—it’s a true pleasure to watch, listen, and enjoy. Naturally, you also get a Digital code on a paper insert.
In my recent review of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari here at The Bits, I noted that no one element of that film seems to stand out above the others. Rather, every aspect of the production simply works perfectly together... and much the same can be said of this production too. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a terrific film, one I hope is but the first in a series of Benoit Blanc team-ups with Craig. It’s also a first-rate 4K Ultra HD release from Lionsgate and a damn fine special edition into the bargain. Don’t hesitate to pick this title for a instant. Very highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt