LFF 2019: Knives Out Review
Rian Johnson delights in taking the mechanics of a well known genre, subverting them, and then piecing them back together as a crowd pleaser that, to the untrained eye, resembles the real thing. From the high school noir inflections of Brick, to his enjoyable (and bizarrely divisive) Star Wars effort The Last Jedi, he’s a director who clearly studies each genre or franchise he chooses to make a film in - and has as much fun noticing and playing around with narrative expectations as the audience.
So after noir, time travel, and a trip to a galaxy far, far away, Johnson has come crashing back to earth with Knives Out, a delightful take on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Everything you could possibly want from the genre is present; a murderer’s row of suspects, all convening in a posh country manor, with a detective reminiscent of Poirot on the case to figure out whodunnit. But after establishing these conventions, Johnson then gleefully takes a sledgehammer to them, building a powerful allegory about modern America from the bare bones of a classic genre story. More so than The Last Jedi, Knives Out firmly establishes Johnson as one of the most reliable filmmakers working in the mainstream today, subverting the expectations of popcorn entertainment without detracting from the simple pleasures.
On the day of his 85th birthday, world renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead after a party, that his extended family have all been invited to. A week later, following the funeral, and two detectives are on hand to interview the various family members - alongside Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a man referred to as America’s “last Gentleman detective”, who has been hired by a mysterious source to independently crack the case. Different family members have different motives; Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) is in charge of publishing Harlan’s novels and wants more control, Ransom (Chris Evans) is a black sheep with a grudge against the family, while the others (played by the likes of Jaime Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette) all want their share of the inheritance. But with no clear motives, all eyes eventually turn to Marta (Ana de Armas), the private carer who was the last person seen with Harlan prior to his death.
Johnson has been very vocal about not wanting the press to spoil any of the secrets of Knives Out in reviews, and I’ll follow suit, as the film’s best trick is concluding the murder mystery in the first act and switching gears to something far more ambitious from there. As this is a film designed for the multiplexes, the political commentary is simple on the surface - you can easily ascertain which characters we are supposed to be skeptical of due to their casual use of terms like “SJW” and “Snowflake”. But there’s a far more nuanced commentary on a conflicted American society bubbling underneath, all stemming back to the family’s treatment (and overall suspicion) of Marta, the private nurse played by Ana de Armas.
Her arc is as powerful a statement on the treatment of immigrants in Trump’s America as any film released since the 2016 election. Johnson probes potential audience bias against this character based on her status as an immigrant in a way that could be read as anything from a commentary on the social barriers towards a true meritocracy, to a not too subtle rebuke of The Last Jedi’s most vocal, openly prejudiced online critics. And the true masterstroke is weaving this seamlessly into a satisfying murder mystery narrative, providing such consistently high entertainment value on the surface - that you could be forgiven for missing this added food for thought - which makes it one of the finest examples of its genre.
Johnson’s screenplay is one of the year’s funniest in addition to being one of its most ingeniously devised. The entire ensemble are perfectly cast, but nobody shines brighter than Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc. Craig has built a reputation as one of the most miserable men in Hollywood, signing on to numerous Bond sequels despite being open about how he’d rather be “slashing his wrists” than making more. So it’s an absolute delight to see him give the year’s finest comic performance here.
It’s the rare performance that works largely because you can see the actor struggling to avoid laughing during each take, having the time of his life imitating an outsized southern drawl and delivering some of the screenplay’s most outlandish lines, from Blanc’s claim that his methods are inspired by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (“I’ve never read it. Nobody has”), to an extensive monologue about “donut holes” that is worth the price of admission alone. The rule of thumb is that the more fun it looks like actors were having filming a comedy movie, the more insufferable it is to watch. But a performer as typically dour as Craig letting loose like this proves to be the fantastic exception to the rule.