Here’s the thing – taking a page out of David Fincher’s Fight Club, I don’t want to talk about Knives Out. If I say something, I’m going to spoil it. If I refer to a particular scene, I’m spoiling it for you. Even mentioning how deliriously funny it is, I’ve practically spoiled it for you! But since you’ve made the trip to read this, what I will say is this – Knives Out is a rare occasion for an original film where it is paramount that you go in as mindfully fresh as possible, staying away from trailers, snippets, discussions or the expectant hyperbole that’s about to come. Just approach it with all the secrecy and clout that we’re used to as if you were seeing a Star Wars movie!
Speaking of Star Wars, Knives Out is one hell of a response by Rian Johnson. It’s not a stretch on the metaphoric imagination if you think about its title! He supposedly “destroyed childhoods”, “did not understand the Star Wars mytharc” and delivered “the worst Star Wars movie ever!” The Last Jedi (a film which I loved) is not the worst Star Wars movie, but Johnson becoming an unfair target for online bullying and trolling in the film’s aftermath did more to shine a light on toxic fandoms and fan entitlement than subjectively debate the actual merits of the film. But here, he answers his critics by letting his talent do the talking, delivering a masterpiece, Agatha Christie tribute that proves why he is (and always has been) a great director.
The beaut that Rian Johnson has concocted understands all of the mechanics that go into a murder-mystery genre. He fully recognises all of its familiar and self-aware tropes, gaining the respect and trust of its audience to play along in the game. He’s assembled an all-star cast worthy of the ‘everybody’s a suspect’ tag, giving them ample motivations and circular arcs to an ungrateful and self-absorbed bunch of people. He’s not afraid to delve into laughable parody, embracing all of the plot’s absurd silliness with Daniel Craig front and centre with his Poirot-inspired, “gentleman sleuth” qualities and a ridiculous Southern accent that’s so far removed from James Bond. He lovingly adores Ana de Armas as the heart and soul of the story and a career-best for the actress. Only Rian Johnson could have pulled this off, operating by the film’s coffee cup motto – “my house, my rules, my coffee”. This is him having an absolute blast – untethered, off the hook and not giving a damn about anything, channelling that Chris Evans ‘eat shit’ energy into every frame, and it is delightfully glorious.
Continuing my non-spoiler, vagueness around the plot, there’s so much to admire from what Rian Johnson accomplishes for a film that rightfully deserves repeat viewings. Right from the beginning, there’s a brisk, opening nod towards Citizen Kane – instead of the infamous words of “Rosebud”, it opens up with a patriarchal death in the family – the death of the legendary (and wealthy) crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) in an apparent suicide, the day after his 85th birthday party. Suspecting foul play, renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by a mysterious individual to investigate Harlan’s death. And just like any good murder-mystery, there’s no love lost in Harlen’s relationship with his immediate family. He’s the sane, reasonable one in comparison to the self-entitled monsters living in the family home. The suspects have their reasons to see Harlan dead with his prized inheritance left unclaimed.
There’s no shortage of pop culture references from Murder She Wrote to the Thrombey’s Iron Throne chair, a not-so-subtle nod to Game of Thrones. But the enjoyment factor comes from how tightly-woven and meticulously paced it all is, with its sharp-witted commentary on white privilege and entitlement, with the sprinkled family discourse on conservatism, liberalism and Trumpian politics (but never to the detriment of becoming preachy or heavy-handed), topped off with a fun ‘whodunit’ murder mystery as its cherry on top. It’s distinctly old-school in nature but cleverly brought up to date with an enjoyable modern context. And as the mastermind behind its intelligent architect, Rian’s love of cinema shines through with its stylish-noir inventiveness in its editing, cinematography and its exquisite production design, from experimenting with shadowy aesthetics to utilising the same, Kurosawa methodology he used in The Last Jedi with its Rashomon-inspired perspective storytelling.
Knives Out works because of how exceptional the cast is, a Cluedo board of archetypal tropes each with a quirky, dysfunctional moment to shine. Toni Collette as Joni Thrombey dials up the valley girl, insta-famous persona while Jamie Lee Curtis playing the ‘self-made’ real estate mogul and would-be matriarch, brought back fond memories of her steely, presence in the short-lived (and criminally underrated) Scream Queens. As the black sheep of the family, Chris Evans as Ransom brilliantly retires his Captain America heroism for someone who’s deplorable and vile. But it inevitably goes to show with the right material, the cast functions as a well-oiled machine, bouncing around in the vibrancy of their on-screen chemistry. It’s not supposed to be a comedy; it’s deliberately played with a straight-faced conviction as you would expect. We’re not supposed to sympathise with the Thrombey family. To put it bluntly, they’re all assholes! Only Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera can hold her head high as the moral compass, caretaker and ‘sensitive ear’ towards Harlen. But the sharp audacity of Rian’s script leaves his despicable characters in a place where you greedily want more. Their beautiful disharmony can be seen on the screen watching as they all ‘one-up’ each other to get to Harlen’s fortune, and it’s performances like that where you wished that ‘Best Ensemble’ category for the Oscars would hurry up and present itself to the mainstream to acknowledge that fact.
And the person who has the most fun is Daniel Craig, delivering his best comedic performance since Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. Comfortable playing eccentric characters, he relishes the role, clearly enjoying every slapstick circumstances and some scene-stealing lines.
Its only fault is its slight predictability towards the end (if you have been paying attention), but that doesn’t take away from what Knives Out accomplishes as a whole. The convergent journey is what matters most because the film is refreshingly honest with itself. Smartly living up to its ‘larger than life’ concept, Rian’s jigsaw contraption has ample breathing room for misdirection and second-guessing, but enough mesmerising momentum to carry through its payoff.
Judging by this effort, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an energetic blast, not only a landmark undertaking in skill, craft, nuance, and entertaining hilarity but makes a confident and exceptional call to be considered as one of the best films of the year. With that kind of overwhelming evidence, there are no arguments from me. Case closed.
KNIVES OUT is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details. Released in UK cinemas 27th November.