Knives Out Review
The deadly blades in Rian Johnson’s return to a much more condensed style of filmmaking are always on display in Knives Out, whether in literal or figurative form. After dealing with whiny fanboys complaining about his transformation of the Star Wars franchise from a nostalgic fan-service vehicle into possibly the best entry to date, it’s hard not to believe the title plays into some of his recent experiences and acts as something of a cathartic kickback against all the undue criticism that was sent his way.
While this is a smaller affair than the life-and-death stakes played out in a galaxy far, far away, Johnson has handpicked a super-sized ensemble who have all been perfectly cast in their respective roles. Of the films Johnson has made previously it most closely resembles his puzzle-box of a debut, Brick, a film that instantly put his name on the map back in 2005. There’s always been a retro feel to Johnson’s work and his fifth feature is another throwback, this time to classic murder mystery territory, with some pleasing nods to the likes of Angela Lansbury and even a brief appearance by Blood Simple's M. Emmet Walsh.
As Daniel Craig’s private investigator Benoit Blanc would say, “the game is afoot” right from the off. Knives Out runs for a touch over two hours and has to eventually untangle itself from a complicated web of plot, which begins in the heart of the super-rich Thrombey family. The patriarch of the clan, self-made millionaire author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found murdered by the housemaid the morning after celebrating his 85th birthday and despite their protests of innocence, all the immediate family members are placed under suspicion.
The team called into investigate Harlan’s murder are led by the aforementioned Mr Blanc, with Craig having a blast under the guise of a ridiculous Southern drawl, alongside Lakeith Stanfield’s Lt. Elliott and Johnson’s go-to character actor Noah Segan as Trooper Wagner. From here on in this review will have to tread carefully when it comes to mentioning specifics, as much of the fun comes experiencing the plot as it happens and trying to play amateur sleuth along the way.
Harlan’s death brings about the sharpening of blades over the size of the cut each family member will receive in Harlan’s will. His eldest daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curits), proclaims herself to be a successful self-made businesswoman, following in the footsteps of her father. Linda’s husband, Richard (Don Johnson), does little but spout racist nonsense about immigration oblivious to the ears of the Latin American members of staff, while their spoilt playboy son, Ransom (Chris Evans), seems to find the whole thing hilarious. Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), manages his father’s publishing rights, but lacks the confidence of his sister, while Toni Collette revels in the caricature of daughter-in-law Joni (widow of deceased son Neil), playing up her vocal fry and is best summed up by one character as “sucking on the teat of this family.”
Unexpectedly emerging out of this mess is Harlan’s long-serving caretaker and confidant, Marta (Ana de Armas). She proves to be the key to Blanc’s investigation in unexpected ways and even though the truth behind Harlan’s murder is revealed quite early on, Johnson ensures there are plenty more questions left to be answered. Marta is one of the members of staff forced to listen to Richard’s poor attempts at justifying his racist beliefs, and while the more obvious Trumpian commentary is impossible to miss, there is a much larger metaphor at play here that gradually reveals itself.
Speaking of metaphors, despite Blanc’s innate talent for seeking out the truth, his own turn of phrase is far from poetic, often leading to some of the film’s most amusing moments. Similarities with Craig's character in Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky extend beyond the accent into his ridiculous performance, one that drips with charisma and yet feels completely believable despite the absurdity of it all. Being Bond for so many years could easily hem in a lesser actor, but this is a firm reminder that he has a lot more to offer after he's finished playing secret agent.
Johnson embraces the well-worn tropes that are largely unavoidable when writing this kind of Clue-style whodunit, while readily deconstructing them at the same time. It’s a film filled with feints, bobs and weaves designed to throw you off the scent, earning every minute spent up onscreen. Whether you want to dig into the wider themes of the film, or just let Johnson lead you up the garden path and back again before abandoning you completely, either way you'll leave the cinema scratching your head and with a smile on your face.
Knives Out opens nationwide in the UK on November 27