The writer-director Rian Johnson recently interrupted a promising career focusing on genre-twisting, intelligent films such as Brick and Looper to bring the world The Last Jedi. It divided opinion upon release, and subsequently, with its defenders praising it as a socially conscious, woke and irreverent take on the Star Wars universe, and others panning it for the same reasons.
For what it’s worth, I hated The Last Jedi beyond comprehension for its arrogance and smugness, and it has joined a small circle of hell in which similar follies like I Heart Huckabees and Ocean’s Twelve reside. But Johnson has now returned to the smaller films that made his name, albeit with a starry cast, in his post-modern take on Agatha Christie murder mysteries, Knives Out.
Does it pass muster? Thankfully, it does, with some flair and aplomb. Although the heart initially sinks when Johnson appears in a filmed introduction, asking the audience not to give the whodunit aspect away, the picture engages pretty much from the off.
In one of those loathsome, privileged families that American cinema does so well, the multi-millionaire patriarch and successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party. It looks like suicide, but eccentric private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play, and says so at every opportunity, much to the discomfort of those around him.
But who is responsible? Is it Thrombey’s apparently devoted nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas)? His grandson Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans)? Or the sinister Walt (Michael Shannon), Thrombey’s son-in-law? One thing is for certain. In any film called “Knives Out”, and there is a vast display of elaborate-looking knives, they are going to be used at some point.
The biggest surprise here is how funny the whole affair is. Many of the wittiest lines are thrown away virtually as asides. When one minor character is shown a crucial but poor quality security videotape, he asks earnestly “Does this mean that I’ll be cursed and die in a week?” There are also some wonderful moments of high and low humour, from clever references to the great age of detective fiction to a running joke about falsehood-induced vomiting, which pays off in spectacular fashion at the end.
Humour does rather overwhelm suspense, and this is not a film that will have viewers on the edge of their seats, but the final revelations are clever, well-thought-out and do play fair with the audience. This is especially so after it seems, playing against expectations, that the whodunit aspect has been wrapped up far earlier than the average viewer might expect.
It’s also surprisingly political, and clever with it. Although Johnson wore his left-wing sympathies on his sleeve with The Last Jedi, Knives Out does a far more elegant and involving job of offering the Thrombey house, in all its Gothic, gloomy magnificence, as an analogy for Trump’s America. Particular credit must go to production designer David Crank for his superb work.
The characters in it are lecherous, greedy and instinctively hostile to immigrants – there is a good gag about how none of the family ever get Marta’s country of origin right – but are nonetheless willing to defend their kingdom at all costs. When your cast includes the likes of Don Johnson and Jamie Lee Curtis, both excellent at the kind of deadpan comedy this requires, it makes the jokes land all the harder, along with the points it’s making. No doubt this will be required watching in the Bernie Sanders household, and beyond.
It helps that Johnson has assembled a crack team of actors. Craig, visibly relieved to be freed of his Bond shackles, is a hoot as the drawling private detective, speaking his aphorisms in a deliberately absurd southern accent. His other iconic co-star Evans is also relishing the chance to play a jerk, complete with a variety of excellent knitwear, who could not be further removed from Captain America if he tried. The rest of the ensemble are all excellent, especially Plummer in a role equal parts twinkly and stern, and it’s a delight to see Frank Oz in human, rather than puppet, form as a put-upon lawyer. Finally, Johnson’s cousin Nathan contributes a suitably dramatic, witty score.
Film companies often take a risk releasing original, adult-oriented pictures around Christmas, a time when the market is usually saturated with mega-blockbusters, including this year’s great curiosity, Cats. Still, Knives Out is terrifically enjoyable, clever and enormous fun, a genuinely intriguing mystery with as many big laughs as fiendishly sophisticated revelations.