It seems somewhat strange to me that it has only been a few years since Rian Johnson went from being a moderately well-known director still in the relatively early part of his career, to being one of the most talked about film-makers in the industry. His addition to the Star Wars canon is that more rare and wonderful of things, a film that gets better every time that I watch it, to the extent that I would now consider The Last Jedi to be close to or on a par with Episodes IV and V. But Rian Johnson wanted to be more than a sci-fi guy.
And so, Knives Out, a film that had pretensions of being both a tribute and a quasi-satire of the Agatha Christie brand of murder mystery’s, replete with a single main location, loads of suspects and an aloof detective with an odd accent. It hasn’t been that long since Kenneth Branagh breathed new life into Hercule Poiret (looking forward to the follow-up in 2020), but I think that I was looking forward to this a bit more: the director, the cast and the promise of a production that would, to use a phrase that morons have taken to using as a criticism of anything that doesn’t mire itself in predictability, subvert my expectations. I was fully confident that Knives Out would be a continuation of Johnson’s excellent work.
The day after his 85th birthday party, wealthy mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, having apparently killed himself. His family – among them daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son Walter (Michael Shannon), son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), and granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford) – gather to mourn and take care of his affairs, joined by Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). Their duties are interrupted by the arrival of famed private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who comes to realise that everyone present had a motive for murdering Harlan.
Well, Rian Johnson most definitely did it again. Consider my expectations subverted, and in a good, nay, great way. In the process of delivering a truly excellent murder mystery, the kind that Agatha Christie would have matched only on her very best day, Rian Johnson somehow managed to flip everything and turn his movie into an expose of how entitled, rich, white elitists in American are treating minorities, and how they can be defeated. Allow me to take a look at the film from both perspectives.
So, on the one hand, you have the murder mystery. Johnson’s script sublimely introduces all of the major players, and there are a lot, in an exquisitely paced and balanced first act, where the general idea is to make it clear that multiple people had a reason to murder Harlan Thrombey. He was about to expose his son-in-law’s infidelity, he had cut his daughter-in-law and granddaughter off financially after discovering malfeasance on their part, he’s done the same to his worthless grandson and he’s just fired his long-suffering son from running his literary empire.
And that is just the beginning. Even as the Thrombey family members play nice, it begins to become clear that there is a rot at the heart of the family, and everyone is effected, be it the alt-right troll of a younger grandson or the easily panicked housekeeper. Everyone is a little bit of an asshole, everyone has something to say about the others and everyone has something to hide. Posited motives are thrown back and forth, the flow of the various interviews begin to mix together, and flashbacks weave in and out of the narrative, giving the viewer a complete picture while leaving out the solution. Throw in some excellent intros for the eponymous Benoit Blanc, his own Lestrade in the shape of Lakeith Stanfield, the best Chekov’s gun prop that I have ever seen, and you have yourself a set-up. The questions to hook the audience in pile up: Could a dispute over film right’s to Harlan’s works become murder? What was making the dogs bark in the middle of the night? And how does blackmail figure into what happened?
But then Johnson turns things on their head, by pulling a Columbo and showing us exactly how Harlan died. Enter the film’s actual main character, caretaker Marta, played with great emotion and empathy by Ana de Armas, who I last saw playing the best part in Blade Runner 2049. I won’t go into the details other than to say that Marta has her own secrets, alongside the bizarre but increasingly endearing physical tick of being unable to enunciate lies without vomiting right after. Such a malady attracts Blanc to her as a Watson to his Sherlock and away they go, Blanc trying to get to the truth of things, and Marta struggling with her own conscience as she attempts to enact her deceased employer’s last instructions. De Armas really is fantastic, serving as both a sort of audience surrogate and moral cipher for the production: a scene where she frantically confronts a medical disaster early on really showcases what she can put across. She’s soon to star opposite Craig again, but that will be the much more high profile No Time To Die: I hope she’s soon a dominant presence in her profession.
It really is a whip-smart and captivating mystery, where every bit of dialogue is tailor-made to advance the plot or to draw attention to something that will be important later. Knives Out is a film that rewards attention, and will have any audience member attempting to solve the crime before the final solution plays (and yes, it does so in a drawing room). You keep expecting the inevitable twists, but when they come they still manage to surprise you. I really can’t say enough about how intelligent this film and this script is, it being something that has clearly been worked on for years, to the point of an exact and breathtaking refinement. Benoit Blanc posits that the case he is assigned to is a doughnut inside a doughnut owing to the holes that must be filled, but Knives Out avoids such common pitfalls of the genre with an engaging and ultimately satisfying mystery plot that makes sense. And it’s funny when it needs to be, deftly mixing laughs with drama.
The characters are searingly real and expertly played by a succession of some of the current landscapes best. Standouts are Michael Shannon’s Walt, a pathetically brow-beaten man who can’t handle his own inferiority next to his father (and has a scary streak), Chris Evan’s Ransom, who carries an Edmund-esque quality of villainous charisma (Evans clearly relishes casting off the shield to play a nasty sort) and of course Daniel Craig’s Blanc, a seeming parody of Poiret with the detached manner and ridiculous accent (the actor is clearly having a ball here, a world away from James Bond’s seriousness), who treads the line between being almost comical in his studious pronouncements and remarkably affecting in his one-on-one interactions.
But then there is the other side of Knives Out, that becomes apparent just around the half-way point, right around the time that the Richard character drunkenly begins making excuses for Donald Trump’s America and its treatment of immigrants and the undocumented. After dropping a line from Hamilton earlier on to establish his transparently false non-racist credentials, he declares respect for Marta as a non-national (every member of the Thrombey family names a different place as her country of origin) who came into America “the right way”, even while he dismissively relegates her in status by motioning her to take an empty plate from his hands.
From that point on, Knives Out suddenly carries a very important and relevant sub-text: that the quasi-gentry that make up America’s 1% only really care about the people beneath them insofar as they are a stepping stone to more power, or are an enemy to be neutralised. It’s a commentary on class privilege and ethnocentrism, and on the modern symbol of fascist thinking, seen through Harlan’s alt-right grandson (Jaeden Martell, recently of It), glued to his phone, only lifting his head up to spew the odd insult, a character that Johnson may well be basing off the lower breed of critics of his last movie. But the 99%, and especially the portion of that number that we can classify as immigrants, can fight back, turning the greed and arrogance of the powerful against them.
How to do this? Essentially by refusing to play the game, and by maintaining an adherence to the simple maxim that honesty is the best policy, always. The only characters who prosper in Knives Out are the ones that either disassociate themselves from the web of lies being weaved by all around them, or those that reject such things after briefly engaging with them (to their detriment). It is only by being honest, and moral and virtuous in your actions that you can rise up, escape and make good.
It’s a simple lesson, but one that resonates today, in a world where hate, bigotry and elitism appear to be rife. Knives Out presents a micro-chasm of such a world, but the end result is an uplifting ode to the worthwhileness of being truthful and, well, good: it has a real humdinger of a final shot, a cathartic final triumph mixed with potent warning to those who do not deserve the success or power as they have been granted. Be a good person, don’t lie and don’t be greedy: there are worse messages for films to come out with recently, and the subtext of Knives Out is the perfect way to cleanse the palette following the unpalatable and ugly Joker.
It’s Rian Johnson, so you know that Knives Out looks good. The Thrombey mansion is an utterly gorgeous location, with a rich lived-in looking interior filled with minute details (some of which turn out to be quite important, like the aforementioned Checkov’s gun). The director flips between bright truth-filled days and shadowy nights infested with deceit, with an expert understanding of light or the lack of it in setting mood and tone. There are lots of neat visual flourishes: the differing memories of blowing out the candles of Harlan’s birthday cake, with every member of the family putting themselves at the centre; a fabulous montage sequence where the details of Harlan’s death are outlined; the moment when, viper like, the Thrombey family turns on Marta; and the world’s oddest police chase, where the person driving the pursued car isn’t even who the cops are after.
It all comes together in a production crafted with skill and precision. It should be no surprise that a veteran of Star Wars would be able to effectively manage the confluence of location, props, costuming and music (the score, from Johnson’s frequent collaborater Nathan Johnson, is restrained but appropriate). One can’t help but think of Cluedo in many ways, this wood-panelled and exquisitely furnished abode, leather chairs in every shot, that is hiding death and secrets in every corner. The various production aspects all merge to create a central location that is both inviting and haunting.
Knives Out easily slots in, at this late stage, as one of the best films of the year. It’s a film that does not play to a low denominater, instead respecting the intelligence of the audience. Rian Johnson nails every bit of the murder mystery genre in a fashion unseen for a while, and then layers everything with some expert allegory and allusion. It’s paced so well, never feeling slow or burdensome, and has an intricacy that delights. The ensemble cast is utterly superb, with Ana de Armas establishing herself as one of the best actresses working today and everyone else doing good work. It looks great, sounds great, and is great. Rian Johnson has now firmly declared that he is one of the best, most inventive, and most exciting directors in the business, whose future projects I await with baited breath. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).