Director Rian Johnson gives us a twisty murder mystery take on what happens when strained family relations turn murderous in Knives Out. It is an effervescent and slick whodunnit and a total blast to watch, writes Eliza Janssen.
For his fifth film, Rian Johnson has assembled a murderer’s row of acting talent – literally.
Knives Out concerns the death of a murder novel mogul played by Christopher Plummer, and the killer could be anyone, including his pantsuit-wearing daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), alcoholic sad-sack son (Michael Shannon), or Gwyneth Paltrow-esque wellness guru daughter-in-law (Toni Collette).
Delightfully enough, the members of the Thrombey family are all under the eye of detective Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig’s southern fried take on Hercule Poirot. In a film full of meaty roles, Craig is the biggest scenery chewer, letting lines like “the Nazi masturbatin’ in the bathroom” soak up every drop of the Foghorn Leghorn accent he sports.
Johnson has always had a knack for subversion, ever since his high-school noir debut Brick, and even in blockbusting franchise outlier Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Working in the murder mystery format allows the director endless possibility for subversive twistiness. His love of the genre is obvious; characters watch a Spanish-language version of Murder, She Wrote on TV, and Lakeith Stanfield’s (frankly underutilised) lieutenant comments that the dramatic Thrombey family home looks like a “Clue board,” calling to mind 1985’s Clue – another brilliant, playful mystery movie.
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Blade Runner 2049 star Ana De Armas quickly surfaces as Johnson’s most empathetic playing piece: a cardigan-wearing bundle of nerves, a la Vera Claythorne in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. De Armas is Marta, the victim’s nurse, and she has the idiosyncratic malady of vomiting whenever she lies, making her the detective’s most useful asset in the film’s enthralling first act.
Marta and her family’s legal status as undocumented immigrants also makes Knives Out something of an immigrant story – both in how each member of the upper class family considers themselves a “self-made success” despite their patriarch’s wealth and support, and in how none of them can remember whether Marta is Ecuadorian or Brazilian. Swiftly after each privileged Thrombey heir is introduced, we’re given reason to dislike them, and then just enough motive that any one of them could be the killer. Chris Evans’ trust-fund baby Ransom is considered the “black sheep” of the family, but let’s be real; all of them are their own specific breed of asshole.
The trouble with such a stellar ensemble is that, like a murder investigation, mystery films eventually hone in on a few key suspects, leaving some delightful performances by the wayside as we get closer to our killer. As the family circle like vultures in the movie’s third act, their characters are somewhat flattened, with De Armas and an unlikely ally pulling most of the focus. That’s to the film’s detriment, as the Thrombey manor is clearly the most emotionally charged location. Wooden faces and figures peer from every door, and there’s even some decent use of secret doors and windows. Once the action moves to a neighbouring town, some of the tension is inevitably lost.
Johnson’s central puzzle also seems to be answered surprisingly early on in the film, but any viewer that grew up on Scooby Doo will know that there are further twists and turns to come – and it can be a little tiresome waiting for the characters to catch up. Knives Out definitely feels more loose and cinematic when compared to a tighter, more theatrical mystery film like Clue, which takes place almost in real time and in one contained setting.
It seems that Johnson’s plotting requires a little more breathing room. Johnson gives his script a little more breathing room, which is fine by me if it means we get scenes like Christopher Plummer gleefully gnarling his hands into claws and croaking “I’m old! I’m so old!”
Any plot quibbles are secondary to the effervescent, slick storytelling on display here. In today’s threatened cinematic landscape, it’s tricky to find a middle ground between bombastic PG-rated CGI shenanigans and bleak, gritty content made “for grown-ups.” Knives Out lies directly in that sweet spot; following the deliciously complex plot takes some concentration, but never so much that you miss a joke, or a perfectly drawled line reading from Craig. As the movie’s marketing has trumpeted for months and months, this thing is fun. And fun is in short supply when it comes to original, mainstream films with a wide release these days.
If you’re after a higher body count, there’s also the excellent Ready Or Not, another aristocratic knife-fight starring a hyper-expressive Aussie actress (Samara Weaving, not Toni Collette and 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford). But for Christie fans and Cluedo obsessives, Knives Out will be an immensely comforting rewatch for a long time to come.
It’s a great film for the whole family, but be careful: you might not want to give them any ideas.