Home > Reviews > KNIVES OUT – Nathan Johnson

KNIVES OUT – Nathan Johnson

December 17, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Knives Out is a super-fun Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, given a contemporary twist by writer-director Rian Johnson. Daniel Craig stars as Benoit Blanc, a master detective with a Foghorn Leghorn accent, who is called to help the police solve the murder of wealthy novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found dead in his Connecticut mansion on the night of his 85th birthday. Blanc encounters a motley crew of family and staff members – played by an astonishing supporting cast including Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas – all of whom have sufficient motive and means to want Harlan dead. As the story progresses Blanc discovers an intricate web of lies, deceit, familial in-fighting, blackmail, and so much more, eventually leading to an ending when he deduces the facts of the crime and the guilty parties are revealed. It’s a tremendously entertaining story – less a whodunit, and more of a whydunit – featuring enjoyable performances, clever writing, and plenty of twists and turns. It’s a marked difference from Johnson’s last film – the polarizing Star Wars: The Last Jedi – and reminds viewers why his earlier films, like Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper, were so well-received.

The score for Knives Out is by the talented composer and multi-instrumentalist, and the director’s cousin, Nathan Johnson. With the exception of Star Wars Nathan has scored all of Rian’s previous films, and was considered one of the most promising up-and-coming composers in Hollywood after the release of Looper in 2012, when he won the IFMCA Award for Breakthrough Composer. Since then, though, Nathan has only scored a handful of films (Don Jon in 2013, Kill the Messenger in 2014, among them), and has instead drifted into other artistic endeavors including directing music videos, producing short films and indie features, live performances, and graphic design, often in collaboration with his multi-media art group The Cinematic Underground. Knives Out is Johnson’s first full-length feature score in five years, and it’s excellence only reminds us just what we have been missing out on while he was away being creative in other ways.

To match the highbrow, slightly old-fashioned stylistics of the film itself, Johnson wrote a highly classical score that at times plays more like a concerto for strings than a traditional film score. It’s anchored by two main themes; the first, the Knives Out Theme, is a wonderful piece of classical pastiche and melodrama that drips with Gothic atmosphere and features some truly outstanding string writing that darts and flits up and down scales with a richness and passion not regularly encountered in contemporary film scoring. After the opening salvo, subtitled the “String Quartet in G Minor,” Johnson allows the theme to re-occur frequently. Further statements and allusions abound in cues like the wonderfully flamboyant “Knives Out, Part II (The Will),” and the brilliant “Foul Play,” which is awash in revelation and moments of high drama.

The second main theme is the Thrombey Family theme, a more stately and slightly more refined piece, with a darkly elegant aspect. Harlan Thrombey is portrayed as a man of rarefied tastes – masterpiece paintings and sculptures, stained glass windows, sumptuous tapestries, wood-paneled studies lined with books, and so on – and this music speaks to the opulence of that environment, but Johnson encrusts it all with a little bit of dust and the underpinnings of rot, mirroring the cancer at the center of the family circle. This theme first appears in “The Thrombey Estate” in an Elfmanesque waltz-like arrangement, and subsequently plays in regular counterpoint to the Knives Out theme, the two ideas intertwining on a regular basis. The “Solo Piano” version of the theme is shrouded in velvety gloom, “On the Eve of Harlan’s Demise” is effortlessly spooky, and “The Wake” is appropriately solemn but also has an unexpected jazz-like fluidity to its piano performances.

One or two cues raise the excitement stakes and start encroaching into action music territory. For example, “Harlan’s Plan” features more urgent string ostinatos, heavier percussion rhythms, and more resounding brass calls, giving the circumstances surrounding Harlan’s death a sense of danger, while later “The Attic Room” becomes grand, almost triumphant, during its finale. The best of these more kinetic moments, however, is “The Dumbest Car Chase of All Time,” for the scene in which two characters attempt to escape from the local authorities in, basically, an under-powered hybrid, with predictable results. Despite this, Johnson scores the scene with seriousness and gravitas, surrounding the slow-speed hike down the freeway with pulsating brasses, whirling string writing, bold and bombastic percussion hits, and a sense of energetic movement that is truly terrific.

Much of the rest of the score is given over to rich, luxurious orchestral atmospherics: deep cellos, melodious piano lines, sonorous woodwinds, fat brass chords, and hints of the themes deconstructed down to two or three notes. Some of it has a vaguely comedic edge, which is noticeable in cues like “Double-Dipping,” “Snooping,” and many others, but the whole thing overall has a sense of trepidation and mystery that is exceptionally effective.

The conclusive trio, comprising “No More Surprises” and the two parts of “Blanc’s Tale,” wrap up the score beautifully, beginning with an almost Carter Burwell-esque dark fanfare, and then winding its way through almost 11 minutes of suspense, drama, apprehension, and statements of the Knives Out theme and the Thrombey Family theme, as the disarming sleuth reveals his deductions to the stunned suspects. Johnson’s textures are beautifully rendered with a snake-like sinuousness, twisting and turning, moving effortlessly through the orchestra, making constant allusions to the thematic ideas, and occasionally emerging into more punchy moments of drama and revelation courtesy of an enlarged percussion section and more beefy performances from the players. The final moments of “Part II” are especially powerful.

It’s truly gratifying when a score like Knives Out comes out in 2019. Johnson and Johnson clearly know and love traditional film music, and appreciate the noirish atmosphere that a good, classical, rich orchestral score can give to a film like this. Their work gives the film a classy sheen that helps enliven the pulpy and sometimes hammy histrionics of the cast, and provides the whole thing with a sense of moodiness and vaguely sinister unease that sells the story and brings the audience into the environment. Johnson’s clever use of the two main themes, combined with his wonderfully evocative orchestral textures, is worthy of a great deal of praise, and as I said earlier, it only reminds us what we have been missing for the last five years while Nathan Johnson has been away doing other things. Fans of Agatha Christie murder mysteries will especially love this appropriate homage to the sound of the genre, but anyone who appreciates thriller music at its best will surely love it too.

Buy the Knives Out soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Knives Out (String Quartet in G Minor) (1:51)
  • The Thrombey Estate (1:38)
  • Like Father, Like Son (1:02)
  • The Thrombey Family Theme (Solo Piano) (1:34)
  • Double-Dipping (1:05)
  • Snooping (2:05)
  • On the Eve of Harlan’s Demise (3:59)
  • Harlan’s Plan (3:16)
  • The Wake (1:32)
  • The Attic Room (1:18)
  • The Game’s Afoot (4:00)
  • The Broken Trellis (2:07)
  • Knives Out, Part II (The Will) (3:04)
  • Foul Play (3:26)
  • The Dumbest Car Chase of All Time (2:56)
  • Blackmail (3:14)
  • No More Surprises (0:50)
  • Blanc’s Tale, Pt. I (5:02)
  • Blanc’s Tale, Pt. II (6:12)
  • The Thrombey Family Theme (1:47)

Running Time: 51 minutes 57 seconds

Cut Narrative Records (2019)

Music composed by Nathan Johnson. Conducted by XXXX. Orchestrations by XXXX. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Joseph Bonn and Daniel Waldman. Album produced by Nathan Johnson.

  1. C Dunne
    February 22, 2020 at 9:01 pm

    is the string quartet sheet music for the first track available?

  1. April 15, 2020 at 1:18 pm

Leave a Reply to C Dunne Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.