Rian Johnson returns to his roots with Knives Out, a sharp, witty homage to Agatha Christie whodunnits, and a refreshing take on the genre. Meticulously plotted and laugh out loud funny, this is Johnson’s most complete, intriguing film since Brick, with an intelligent, subversive script and an all-star cast on top form.
When wealthy patriarch and mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in a locked room with his throat slit, it is assumed that he committed suicide. However, when renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives on the scene, employed by an unknown client, it seems that the death might be more suspicious than first expected. With each member of the family having their dirty laundry examined, all of the barely concealed resentment and infighting simmers to the surface, and it becomes apparent that the murderer is a member of the family household.
Daniel Craig has a blast as the laconic, drawling private eye, and manages to make him both enigmatic and likeable. Craig seems to have reached the stage in his career where he can just have fun in character roles (Also see Logan Lucky) and he dominates every scene he’s in; no mean feat when you look at the calibre of actors he is up against.
The rest of the family, played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette and Don Johnson are all equally impressive, but eventually feel more like a series of broad cameos than fully formed characters. The performances themselves are all on-point though: Evans is great playing against type as an amoral wastrel, Curtis gives her seemingly cold character a subtle degree of warmth, and Johnson is really funny as her idiotic and hot tempered husband.
Outside of the family, Lakeith Stanfield is also solid as the unflappable straight man detective, and Johnson’s lucky charm Noah Segan is genuinely endearing as the fanboy sergeant. Ana De Armas makes for a refreshingly innocent character as Harlan’s guileless nurse who is unable to lie without being physically sick, and the sweet relationship she has with Plummer is really sensitively portrayed. Unfortunately though, her quiet, timid performance often can’t withstand the onslaught of larger than life characters. She’s strongest in her scenes with Craig, which bring out the warmth of both characters, and in Craig’s case especially, ground them a little bit, making them feel more like real people.
Much like Edgar Wright, Johnson finds creative ways of conveying exposition and jokes through editing and framing, using them as joke telling devices in their own right. The early interrogation scenes are a nicely judged combination of set-ups and pay-offs, and genuine exposition presented in a refreshing, funny way. The droll sense of humour that was decried as being out of place in The Last Jedi is a much better fit here, and the filmmaking style shows Johnson playing to his strengths. Even more impressively, the director never cheats. He plays fair with the audience throughout, and like the best whodunnits, at the point of the big reveal everything just slots into place. It also looks great; the cinematography and costume design are infused with a vivid colour palette that compliments the tongue-in-cheek plot and colourful characters nicely.
On the surface, Knives Out is simply a modern version of an all-star cast, Agatha Christie whodunnit but it’s more subversive than it first appears. Rian Johnson is clearly a director who revels in labyrinthine plots, and after the mixed reactions to The Last Jedi, this sees him back on surer footing. It blends the complexity of Brick with the playfulness of The Brothers Bloom and the result is something completely distinct. Combine this with a witty script and a winning lead performance from Daniel Craig and the result is a pleasure to watch, and probably the most fun you’ll have all year.