Knives Out (2019)

Director: Rian Johnon

Writer: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Noah Segan

Producers: Ram Bergman, Rian Johnson,

Music: Nathan Johnson

Cinematography: Steve Yedlin

Editor: Bob Ducsay

Cert: 15

Running time: 130mins

Year: 2019


What’s the story: When acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) suddenly commits suicide, famous detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) investigates.

What’s the verdict: You’ve just made one of the best instalments of a legendary movie franchise. Yet, toxic fanboys have their (to use an apt phrase) knives out and suddenly you’re Public Enemy Number 1.  

What do you do? If you’re Rian Johnson, you don’t concern yourself with online acrimony and instead calmly deliver a Top 10 of the year contender.

Jumping from The Last Jedi’s galaxy far, far away, Knives Out sees Johnson landing in leafy Massachusetts for an Agatha Christie style detective mystery. Using basic genre building blocks – a body, possible foul play, a menagerie of cagey characters in a sprawling country house – the writer/director creates a rollicking whodunnit/did-anyone-do-it?

With as many story twists, shimmies and shakes as in his sci-fi belter, Looper.

A script this good presumably had little trouble attracting A-list interest as one hell of an ensemble turn-up for this exquisitely crafted guessing game. Lending old school class is Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, a phenomenally successful mystery writer who is Agatha Christie, Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane rolled into one.

Discovered with his throat cut and knife in hand, Harlan’s demise seems like an open-and-shut suicide case. Investigating cops Lt. Elliott (Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Segan) see follow-up interviews of Thrombey’s family as a final formality.

Joining them however is Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Craig), a Southern state Poirot as composed as his elocution is honey dipped. Suspecting there is more to the case, Blanc begins to interview the family and house staff.

Thrombey’s eldest Linda (Curtis) gives him short shrift, while oily smooth husband Richard (Johnson) is quick with the charm and answers. Their son Ranson (Evans) is a trust-fund wastrel, coasting on good looks and stipends. Linda’s brother Walt (Shannon) heads up Harlan’s publishing company while defending the online right-wing trolling of son Jacob (Martell).

Middle-aged Instagram influencer Joni (Collette) is the widowed daughter of Harlan’s son, but still loving the family by way of the old man’s money. Her daughter Meg (Langford) is an SJW at war with Jacob and the only one with real time for Harlan’s nurse Marta (de Armas).

They are all shifty and recently more than one argument has been had in the old man’s study. But, are any of them capable of murder?

The joy of Knives Out is in the dexterity with which Rian Johnson constructs his mystery machine. Multiple moving parts power subplots that deepen the intrigue, yet never do you hear cogs whirring or gears grinding. Precision filmmaking, the fun comes in how easy Johnson makes it look.

Shifting metaphors, like a good magician he lets you peek behind the curtain on the smaller surprises, deflecting attention from dynamite story twists so they dazzle all the more. Multiple plot possibilities buzz in the brain (we had four theories on the go at one point), and we’re happy to report that Johnson astonishes up to and including the final moments.

A shrewd script makes this a mystery for the here-and-now. Immigration issues, 1% privilege, the alt-right, Netflix and Hamilton pepper the sparkling, hemlock-tinged dialogue characters spit at one another. Like all good country pile tales, a vein of class consciousness also runs throughout, primarily focussed on good egg Marta.

Bouncily shot by Johnson and regular DP Steve Yedlin, they bring to life David Crank’s amazing production design. Harlan’s mansion is a metaphor for the family, beautiful and well-presented, but brimming with secrets. Inside, a huge web like sculpture with knives for threads is conceptual shorthand for the film itself.

Into this gorgeously executed pantomime come the players. Savouring their characters, no-one missteps and no part feels undercooked. Plummer is like fine barrel-aged whisky as the patriarch who is different things to different people. Johnson and Collette shine as the flaky in-laws. Sorry To Bother You’s Stanfield and Looper’s Segan earn good laughs as cops bewildered at exactly how this is straying so far from routine.

But, Knives Out is Craig’s show. He has a ball as a man of insouciance in manner and speech, calmly moving through the story while infuriating the indulged family. It’ll be good to get Bond out the way so he can enjoy himself in projects as good as this.

His comic chemistry with the excellent de Armas, whose Marta is a reluctant Watson, is an effervescent display of wit and warmth.

If Johnson decides to return to the well, we’d happily watch another Benoit Blanc Mystery. Until then, get the word out: Knives Out is a five-star delight it would be criminal to miss.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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