Writer-director Rian Johnson takes a break from blockbusters for a giddy spin on the classic whodunnit
“You will be investigating thieves, misers, bullies… the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet. My family.” So warned Christopher Plummer’s mega-rich industrialist, Henrik Vanger, in David Fincher’s dark thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But he might have been talking about the family in writer-director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, too, a film that pegs Plummer as yet another disillusioned patriarch facing similar issues. This time he’s Harlan Thrombey, a legendary (and very rich) writer of murder mysteries, dead by suspected suicide – though more likely he was murdered at the hands of one of his calculating children or their spouses (all suspects) on the night of his 85th birthday.
Johnson, fresh off the back of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, rallies an all-star cast for his clever homage to the works of Agatha Christie: there’s Jamie Lee Curtis’ “self-made” businesswoman, Toni Collette’s Gwyneth Paltrow-like influencer, Michael Shannon’s resentful underachiever, Don Johnson’s desperate-to-be-woke dad, and Chris Evans’ smarmy egotist. Everyone’s got a motive – everyone except for Ana de Armas’ part-time nurse, Marta, the only person Harlan felt a real connection with. Leave it to Daniel Craig’s flamboyant private investigator, Benoit Blanc, to solve the case.
Though Knives Out doesn’t hesitate to deliver a number of the expectation-subverting twists Johnson has become renowned for (technically, you might even call this one an “anti-murder mystery”), it still unravels as a traditional whodunnit that proudly relishes in the conventions of the genre. Immaculately shot and expertly edited, the narrative jumps back and forth in time as the filmmaker drip-feeds us a labyrinthian plot that’s always tightly controlled and delivers a script that’s never anything but playful and funny. Despite its throwback-y look (it’s set almost entirely in a house that one character refers to as a “Clue board”), Johnson’s also keen to place this tale in today’s troubled world, positioning it as a battle between the entitled rich and the hard-working poor, and packing it with an endless parade of modern references that firmly put us in the present day – and that includes the best nod to Hamilton in a film to date.
Craig, channelling (intentionally or unintentionally) House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, seems to be having as much of a blast here as he did in Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, another film that traded his iconic Bond stoicism with an unexpected Southern accent. For all the big-name stars, though, it is De Armas who lingers with you long after Knives Out severs its ties. Her fully-committed, sympathetic performance works to balance the broader, scenery-chewing turns spun by her peers, grounding the film whenever it threatens to get too wacky. If Knives Out – fast-paced and quip-heavy – seems to lose sight of its ensemble in the third act, and its denouement doesn’t prove quite as satisfying as the road we take to get there, the final shot, at least, closes this case in a dizzyingly cathartic manner. On this evidence, Knives Out might be Johnson’s best film yet. It’s certainly his sharpest.
By: Tom Barnard
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This film was screened for the press as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. For more information and showtimes for this year’s festival, head to our dedicated page.
This post was categorised in Reviews.