Directed by: #RianJohnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Knives Out Movie Review
In just a few films, Rian Johnson has come from interesting indie #filmmaker to the kind of director who’s name is put on the poster to sell tickets. From making the ultra low-budget Brick to being custodian of the cultural and financial behemoth that is Star Wars, Johnson has made himself one of the best-known directors in Hollywood. Hence the enormous anticipation for Knives Out, the American’s passion-project whodunnit featuring an all-star cast and a series of cool posters.
Given Johnson’s track record of garnering critical acclaim implementing his personal visions whilst working within genre, it is no surprise that Knives Out is a delight. It is a hoot. A riot. It is possibly the most fun you will have at the movies this year. Johnson has produced a film that stays true to the spirit of an Agatha Christie murder-mystery whilst being self-aware enough to send up the genre’s clichés and pretensions.
In a fun meta twist that is indicative of the film’s approach, the corpse at the centre of our mystery is world-renowned whodunnit novelist Harlan Thrombey - a constant source of amusement to a superfan cop assigned to the case. At the start of the film Thrombey is found with his throat cut on his 80th birthday. The patriarch leaves behind a family of largely pretty despicable people, squabbling amongst themselves and each eying a significant portion of the Thrombey family fortune. It is an almost knowingly familiar set-up, but this does nothing to detract from the fun Johnson and co. have with it.
To spin his yarn, Johnson has assembled a group of actors so funny, so charismatic, that the film could never really have failed. Each one plays their role with utter conviction, revelling in the humour, nastiness and absurdity of the characters. In the youngest generation of the Thrombey dynasty we have Jaeden Martell as alt-right teen Jacob, firmly contrasted by Katherine Langford’s Meg, a college student studying what one character describes as an ‘SJW degree’. Then there is Ransom, played with wicked relish by Chris Evans. Captain America himself, the epitome of the do-gooder American, has a ball subverting his image here as an utter reprobate disliked by all.
Things get even more colourful with the older family members. The often-terrifying Michael Shannon here plays the weaker of Harlan’s two children, hobbling around with his cane and sporting a barely-concealed temper. His hard-nosed older sister is given authority by Jamie Lee-Curtis, whose self-made woman act makes her one of the harder characters to read. She is joined by Don Johnson as her sleazy husband, in yet another wonderfully despicable turn. Then there is the superb Toni Collette as the widow of Harlan’s third child, an influencer-mom who will take all she can get from the Thrombey fund.
The film’s heart, and the closest we get to a lead character, is Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse. She is the person who seems most genuinely upset by the death, and is given a great warmth by Ana de Armas. Her wide, kind eyes make her instantly sympathetic, but there is enough of an edge to the performance to suggest that Marta may or may not be hiding something. Looming large over them all is Christopher Plummer, seen in flashback as Harlan Thrombey himself. Having seen Knives Out it is hard to think of a single actor better to play a rich, benevolent 80-year-old at the heart of a murder story.
As for solving the case? Well, enter Daniel Craig as private investigator Benoit Blanc, a Poirot-like showman with a Southern drawl and only a faint sense of his own ridiculousness. Along with two cops played by Noah Segan and Lakeith Stanfield - an over-eager puppy and a more laconic, grounded character amongst the madness respectively - he sets out to crack the case. Craig is a joy as Blanc, stealing almost every scene he’s in as both a laughable caricature and a moral compass for the case as he digs deeper and deeper.
Blanc is a perfect example of the tonal tightrope Johnson walks with this film. He gets big laughs from sending up detective clichés and highlighting the inherent buffoonery in the character, but always keeps an eye on solving the case. Johnson anticipates all the clichéd pitfalls he might fall into when making a straight-down-the-middle whodunnit and either subverts them or, more often, amps them up for comic effect. Yet crucially, this is not a parody. There is enough genuine malice in the crime, and moral decency in the victim and others to be continually compelled by the solving of the case.
There is also a nice satirical streak running through the film that, whilst not amounting to much beyond ‘please be nicer to each other’, helps to add a fair amount of heart to the film and a deeper level of characterisation amongst the family. It feels tonally right, too, with a film that has no pretensions of being ‘serious’, groundbreaking cinema, but just delights in the myriad opportunities its genre presents. Every chance he gets, Johnson does something fresh and fun, crafting a film that is as playful and compelling visually as it is on the page. Sadly, the grand finale is something of a missed opportunity, with a key ‘twist’ rather too predictable. Nevertheless, it is a satisfying denouement with Craig at his finest.
In short, Knives Out is a film worth looking forward to. Rian Johnson is in a cinematic playground here, working with an A-list cast and a straightforward whodunnit story to craft something that is outrageously entertaining and shows off his many talents as a filmmaker. It offers what the film industry may be missing right now: an original, filmmaker-driven movie that can please a mass audience without being tied to a world-building, multi-level, cinematic universe IP.