Knives Out (USA / 12A / 130 mins)
In short: Razor-sharp thrills
Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Ana de Armas, Don Johnson, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer.
The Plot: The Thrombey family have lived in the shadow of their most celebrated member – Harlan (Christopher Plummer). He’s a mystery author who comes up with ingenious solutions to his murder mysteries. That is, until he himself ends up dead on the night of his 85th birthday, an apparent suicide. Police Lieutentant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) investigates along with noted private investigator Benoit (Daniel Craig), who was invited by a mystery person. They in turn interview the prime suspects – son Walt (Michael Shannon), daughters Joni (Toni Collette), Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their rakish son Ransom (Chris Evans) and Harlan’s kindly nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the person closest to the late Harlan. The game is afoot…
The Verdict: Knives Out? They certainly were for director Rian Johnson, after fanboys and fangirls went into nuclear meltdown and took to their keyboards in apoplectic rage over his boldly confident narrative moves in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Have things calmed down now? Only time will tell with the impending release of the final film in the Skywalker saga, directed by J.J. Abrams. Johnson has coolly shrugged the controversy off and moved on to pastures new, which is exactly the right thing to do. Like Stanley Kubrick, he’s consistent in trying different genres and putting his own spin on them e.g. the noir thriller Brick or the mind-bending sci-fi Looper. Now he’s turned his attention to one of his favourite genres – the star-laden murder mystery whodunit.
The whodunit has a fine cinematic pedigree that stretches back decades, from Agatha Christie’s ingenious And Then There Were None to her Poirot mysteries starring most memorably Peter Ustinov, the tricksy Sleuth and to more recent entries like Identity. Johnson tips his hat at several of these – most notably the original Sleuth in the production design of the family mansion and the presence of a mystery writer. As fun as it is spotting the film references (even the daffy but hilarious Clue), Johnson has cooked up his own heady plot of murder and mayhem that is both sophisticated and smart. He initially follows the template of the whodunit set-up: a famous, possibly hated, person is murdered. Suspects are assembled and interviewed. The plot thickens. Another murder is attempted as our mildly eccentric detective gets closer to the truth…
Then Johnson takes the story in his own direction, seemingly showing his hand early on but then trusting the audience to go with it and see what else can be dug up around these volatile characters. It’s a leap of faith on Johnson’s part, but it’s done so elegantly that you don’t notice the moving parts on the edges of the frame as he draws you deeper into the story. In true whodunit fashion, all is not what it seems. There’s a lot of fun to be had here in watching the plot unfold. A large part of this down to Johnson’s brilliantly-drawn characterisation, hand-picking the right actors to fit the characters. Starting with the first to be cast – Daniel Craig. Benoit Blanc is Johnson’s answer to Hercule Poirot. Fussy but attentive, with a colourful accent to go with his dress sense, Blanc is a delightful creation and an ocean of calm. Although more known as a serious actor, Craig can be great at comedy (e.g. his dim-witted convict in Logan Lucky). He nails the part, as do all the other actors including Ana De Armas as the outsider with all the inside knowledge.
Knives Out is intricately plotted and may require a second viewing to view things from a different perspective. What’s genuinely surprising though is how humourous and sure-footed it is. Even throwaway gags like Marta’s nationality hit time and again, as does the oldest family member’s presence at key points in the story. Rian Johnson has served up a starter, main course and dessert all in one delectable cinematic offering, with the cast having as much fun as the audience will. Knives Out offers razor-sharp thrills to die for.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor