KNIVES OUT / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: RIAN JOHNSON / STARRING: ANA DE ARMAS, JAMIE LEE CURTIS, TONI COLLETTE, CHRIS EVANS, DON JOHNSON / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 27TH
The name Rian Johnson works as a summoning spell. You need only whisper it and, from the depths of the Twitterverse, there will awaken an army of enraged Star Wars fans to accuse The Last Jedi director of having ruined the franchise. It seems this intense backlash has done much to inform Johnson’s newest offering, a whodunit with a twist. With Knives Out, he creates an undisputable crowd-pleaser that may just work to redeem him to the angry masses.
A whodunit may just be one of the hardest genres to review without spoiling the entire plot, so let us start where it’s safe: the characters and the set-up. The latter is classic Agatha Christie. A rich and renowned murder-mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his home, throat slit, on the night of his 85th birthday party. It certainly looks like suicide, but an investigation must still be conducted.
Enter a detective (LaKeith Stanfield), a slightly dim-witted state trooper (Noah Segan), and Southern private eye Benoit Blanc (a hilarious and absurd Daniel Craig, in the farthest cry from his usual steely image) who may not know who employed him, but is pretty sure the old man was murdered.
In a witty, breathless and incredibly over-the-top interrogation set piece that brilliantly shreds through a novel’s worth of exposition, we meet the family-slash-suspects. They are - deep breath please - Thrombey’s daughter Linda (Curtis), a commanding, ‘self-made’ realtor mogul and her dull husband Richard (Johnson); his other daughter Joni (Collette), a lifestyle guru akin to Gwyneth Paltrow if Paltrow was strapped for cash, and her activist daughter Meg (Katherine Langford); and Thrombey’s knitwear-wearing, intellectual son Walter (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and alt-right troll son Jacob (Jaeden Martell).
And that’s not everyone! Late to the party, absent from the funeral and early to the will-reading is Thrombey’s oldest grandchild Ransom, played with riotous enjoyment by none other than the former-Captain America (a quick note to casting agents: give Chris Evans some more baddie roles, please and thank you). Providing another standout performance in a refreshingly non-sexualised role is Ana de Armas as Marta, the dead man’s nurse and close confidante. Marta is not only the moral anchor of the film, she also proves very useful to Blanc’s investigation in her total inability to lie without violently vomiting. Hustlers might have done it first, but Knives Out does it better.
Sounds amazing? That’s because it is. Johnson impeccably walks the line between paying homage to the genre and its essence, while also completely upending its conventions and with it, the audience’s expectations. Knives Out rolls out surprise after twist, juggling a large ensemble and many a plot-twist with apparent ease, yet without any flashy tricks and without seeming self-congratulatory. And while the genre is completely timeless, Knives Out is also consistently of its time. It playfully but sharply comments on today’s political tensions and class divisions without feeling heavy-handed. It’s driven by empathy amidst a host of characters who are decidedly unempathetic, and that makes Johnson’s story feel fresh and timely despite the genre’s golden age being long passed.
This is just big Hollywood at its best. A renowned narrative format honoured yet subverted, a plot that is intelligent but not smug, an all-star cast that is perfectly balanced, giving performances that range from venomous to vulnerable yet are all rip-roaringly funny. Rian Johnson redeemed? I would hope so. I don’t believe anyone can leave Knives Out without having had the time of their life.