With Knives Out, a wickedly clever reinvention of the murder mystery genre for the modern audience, Rian Johnson cements his status as an exceptionally talented filmmaker. Johnson received tremendous backlash from his polarising entry in the Star Wars universe, 2017’s The Last Jedi. Critics loved the film, applauding Johnson’s deconstruction of the Star Wars mythology. Diehard fans responded, well, less positively. Their gripes were numerous, ranging from the frivolous subplots to the forced humour to the frustrating treatment of classic characters. As a big Star Wars fan myself, I couldn’t let this opportunity go by without giving my take: for all its boldness of vision, I must say The Last Jedi left me bitterly disappointed. However, where The Last Jedi suffers from Johnson’s liberal attempts to subvert expectations, Knives Out prospers.
Knives Out’s premise could have been ripped straight out of an Agatha Christie novel: a wealthy patriarch and murder mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party. The police are ready to rule it a suicide before brilliant detective Benoît Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, turns up, having been hired by an anonymous benefactor to look into the case. Suddenly the entire dysfunctional Thrombey clan are suspects, and Blanc – assisted by Harlan’s housekeeper Marta (Ana de Armas) – will uncover all manner of family secrets before the film’s final curtain falls.
Perhaps Knives Out’s greatest credit is that it doesn’t waste a single member of its stellar ensemble cast, which includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Chris Evans. De Armas is probably the standout; her character is set apart by her unique inability to lie without vomiting; but everybody brings their A-game, each of them all in on what Johnson is doing. Craig is certainly all-in on his drawling Southern accent (Evans calls him ‘CSI KFC’ at one point) and brings a real sense of fun to the last role before his final Bond outing. Evans, too, seems to be enjoying playing someone despicable – Harlan’s spoilt grandson Ransom – after carrying the mantle (or shield) of squeaky-clean Captain America for the past 8 years.
Knives Out is also exceptionally well-balanced, between drama and levity – the film has more laughs than most supposed comedies I’ve seen this year – between honouring the genre’s history and giving it a new lease of life. Johnson uses the Thrombey family as a vehicle to examine white privilege: it’s clear none of them really accepts Marta as a part of the family, as shown by their uncertainty about her origins. Is she from Ecuador, Uruguay or Brazil? I have a couple of minor complaints with the film. Some of the cultural references are a bit heavy-handed, and there weren’t quite as many twists as I was expecting. However, Knives Out is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. I have a feeling Rian Johnson’s latest outing will prove far less divisive than his last: it is superb.
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