Knives Out is a fun whodunnit that takes a stab at something deeper
Director: Rian Johnson Starring: Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer Running Time: 130 minutes
“The game is afoot” renowned mystery-solver Benoit Blanc knowingly crows during one of Knives Out‘s twisty turns, and it seems clear from the outset what game director Rian Johnson is playing here. However mixed (and wearingly unending) the reception may have been for Johnson’s last movie, the man clearly has strong support from Hollywood higher-ups, enough to fund a big “one for him” movie, a “dig out an old idea you’ve always wanted to do and hire everyone you’ve always wanted to work with” movie. And so we get Johnson’s loving homage to the murder mystery genre, a story he’s been kicking around since just after Brick, packed to the seams with rising talents, esteemed character actors and Hollywood royalty. And it’s a bloody delight. The opportunity to self-indulge to this extent is not a luxury every filmmaker is afforded, for what it’s worth though, Johnson uses the platform to delve into some unexpected areas worth examining. If you’re going to do something silly, you might as well do it smartly, which Knives Out accomplished on a number of levels.
How it does that is something you better off seeing for yourself. Talking about a film like Knives Out is tricky without tipping a hat to one spoiler or another, but the basic idea is that a family gathering of the wealthy Thrombey family – propped up by mystery novelist patriarch Harlan – has gone badly awry following a spot of murder. Everyone is a suspect, in-fighting is aplenty and extravagant investigator Benoit Blanc has taken the case, much to the annoyance of local police who have the matter pegged as a simple suicide. Taking inspiration from everything from Agatha Christie stories to cult classic Clue to the glossier Gosford Park, the story sticks a large cast of broad characters in a big manor (decked out lovingly and gaudily with props, trophies, sharp objects and secret passageways) and sets them loose to snipe and snoop.
The various strands of the Thrombey dynasty are various degrees of wonderfully horrid. Think the Bluths, but darker, from capital letters The Responsible One Jamie Lee Curtis and her MAGA husband Don Johnson, to simmering Michael Shannon and his dorky incel son (Jaeden Martell), to hanger-on “influencer” Toni Collette and her widely woke daughter Katherine Langford. Christopher Plummer lends gravitas to Harlan, and plays him just tenderly enough you might start to think that the rich aren’t all bad (they are). Everyone is very insistent to Marta, Harlan’s loyal sound-head nurse, that she’ll be looked after and that if it was up to them she would have been invited to the funeral that kicks things off, all protesting way too much, especially considering no one seems sure what country she’s from. As Marta, Ana de Armas is suberbly straight faced with all the madness, and she pairs well with various screen partners, especially Daniel Craig, devouring scenery as Benoit Blanc. Craig’s southern accent from Logan Lucky is given an extra dose here of the chicken laywer from Futurama, he’s got a lot of work in the film at setting the tone and how you take his performance may be key to how you’ll receive the film as a whole. Showing his range and relishing being a bitch, Chris Evans stands out also as the no-good dipshit playboy, swanning in to insult everyone and revel in the drama. There are even more supporting players, and every character is realised at exactly the right point of over the top, you want to watch these people but you definitely wouldn’t want to be in the same room as most of them, you might kill them if some of them wouldn’t kill you first.
Johnson plays up the pastiche hard in Knives Out, focusing the camera keenly on the details around the house and letting his actors go very big from the start. What’s always interesting about the director’s approach to storytelling though is how he plays so broadly with genre conventions to start, then breaks them apart, subverting expectations and bringing in ideas that seem at odds with the story at hand. Then, the pastiche or the genre elements come back in a new context. What seems like an inelegant discussion of some contemporary issues here pays off very intriguingly, Johnson finding parallels in the tensions with the murder mystery and certain talking points in modern politics in terms of who faces consequences and how and why. A post-truth whodunnit, some might say. That won’t work for everyone, but the characters and tropes surrounding it are wildly entertaining all the same. Whether you like neat mysteries, broad social comedy or just the sight of Chris Evans in a lovely jumper (who can blame you), there should be something for you here. A really fun time at the cinema that understands what Columbo, Miss Marple and the rest knew all too well: You can never trust the rich, fuck ’em.(4 / 5)