Knives Out director Rian Johnson likes to take traditional genre pieces and skew them. His debut film Brick was a film noir set in the high-drama high-stakes world of a high school. He even had the audacity to make a Star Wars film and shift the franchise’s north star just enough to have, as he referred to them, the “manbabies” sulking about their beloved childhood being ruined. So for his next trick he has conjured an Agatha Christie style whodunnit that refuses to conform to the way things are meant to unfold.
On the morning after his 85 birthday hugely successful author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found with his throat slit. With his indulged family circling the inheritance like vultures, private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to question the family. What he discovers is that everyone has a motive to kill Harlan, but do any of them have the skills to out-fox Blanc?
From the outset Johnson takes great pleasure in setting the scene. From the cluttered mansion of the reclusive writer to the wonderfully painted rogues gallery of characters. Knives Out opens with the death already having happened before slowly building and winding up the tension as to who could have done it and, more importantly, why. And then, in typical Johnson fashion, he pulls the rug from under you in such a way as by the half-way point you’re desperately trying to outthink the plot. And even then the turns taken are always just a few degrees more compelling than you could hope for. Like his deceased patriarch Johnson relishes in weaving a mystery seemingly unravelable.
Beneath the back-stabbing siblings Johnson is joyously implying a Trumpian vision of America. One in which the rich elite squabble amongst themselves for power and wealth while the kind hearted minorities quietly run the show, going unnoticed until it suits the wealthy to be seen to be doing ‘the right thing’. The film is at its most delectably enjoyable when witnessing the Thrombey’s turn on each other while Blanc does his larger than life Poirot best to understand the chaos laid before him.
The cast is uniformly exquisite. The Thrombey’s are all cast and played to be deplorable charactertures. Jamie Lee Curtis’ matriarch is beautifully two faced, Michael Shannon’s head of the publishing company is a sniveling wreck, while Toni Collette’s daughter-in-law is so over-the-top fake nice you want to see someone wipe that smirk off her face. Craig is on career best form, departing his Bond swagger for something much more twee and altogether more likable. Ana de Armas delicately carries much of the film on her shoulders, demonstrating that she is a serious talent to be reckoned with in modern cinema. Meanwhile Chris Evans steals most of his scenes with both his performance and knitwear. Evans is playing so far against type of his squeakier than clean Captain America that you’re never quite sure who he is going to ridicule and screw-over next. That he’s abe to do it all with a thousand gigawatt smile only heightens his character’s sneering brilliance.
One of the most smile inducingly fun films in recent memory, Knives Out is a darkly comedic dagger to the funny bone.