After causing quite a stir with the most middling of middle-of-the-road Star Wars instalment, writer-director Rian Johnson returns with a surprisingly scaled down little murder mystery. Only this time, it’s different. Ish.
The lives of the wealthy Thrombey family are disrupted upon the sudden, suspicious death of the family patriarch, crime-novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). With much of the fingers pointing to his trusted caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas), famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) begins a surprising investigation.
One of the biggest complaints with Johnson’s much-maligned Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, was that it focused too much on subverting expectations rather than building a decent enough story. Another way of putting it would be; it certainly surprised, but just not in the right way. Therefore it is pleasing to report that Knives Out sticks to Johnson’s newfound rug-pulling technique, but is used to much better and entertaining effect.
The main aspect to impress is, understandably, Johnson’s screenplay. The story crackles with an acid wit and a knowing cleverness that treads the line between pretentious and mean-spirited mocking just about perfectly. As the film goes on, the best aspect comes to the frey; the Thrombley family are all a bunch of horrible gits. And from that, also comes a refreshingly un-preachy helping of political satire. The rich, white Thrombleys all want the same thing; their recently deceased’s sizeable fortune. They keep forgetting where Marta is from and just name drop vaguely Spanish-sounding countries whenever it comes up. Hell, the youngest kid (It’s Jaeden Martell) is a bloody alt-right creepazoid. All of this serves up some of the funniest self-centred character comedy of the year, and is a joy to behold.
But what about that good ol’ subversion of expectations? Well, to divulge much about the plot of Knives Out, would likely dent the intent of what the trailers held back on, so we shan’t spoil it here. But it’s safe to say, before the first third is over, the story already shifts to a much more entertaining alternative to the classic whodunnit.
As to be expected of a film housing this much powerhouse talent, the cast are each and every one excellent. de Armas in particular serves up the most versatile, and impressive, performance of the lot, being drily amusing at times, then shifting to terrified almost seamlessly. Hers is the performance that carries the film the most, and without her, it’s hard to see it succeeding as it does. Chris Evans’ Ransom Drysdale almost serves to be a revelation. After eight years playing Captain America and god knows how many years before that playing bland hunks, Evans offers up some of the film’s biggest laughs. Ransom embodies a charming douchebag persona that is NOT easy to pull off, yet Evans makes it look like a piece of cake.
And then there’s Daniel Craig, clearly having his most fun with a role in years. Sporting an oft-hilarious southern accent, Detective Blanc is charmingly wholesome, yet also ambitiously bumbling. As if Inspector Clouseau and Foghorn Leghorn had an illegitimate child. Craig is a downright joy to behold, stealing every scene he’s in, be it rambling about how much the case’s structure is that of a doughnut, or a simple “oh lawd”, you’ll want more of him as soon as he’s off-screen.
However, Knives Out suffers a few jags that hinder it from being the next great murder-mystery. There’s been a notable shift in Johnson’s aesthetic post-Jedi. With that film and Knives Out, his style has become more fast paced. While this was a benefit for the larger-than-life Last Jedi, when applied to Knives Out in certain areas it simply makes it feel needlessly cartoonish. The film is also, largely, very visually uninteresting. A disappointment after Jedi’s admittedly stunning offerings, Knives Out offers a hearty dose of colour most of the time, but in a much less inventive way than previously explored in Johnson’s work.
While there is no problem with this per se, given the setting and nature of the film, it’s clear that Johnson is much more focused on how good his script is. And even then, it falters slightly. If one hasn’t bought into the mystery by the half-hour mark, its likely the film will just come and go for the viewer with little lasting effect.
Knives Out is an entertaining, subversive take on the classic whodunnit genre, despite it not being the most memorable. However, it’s hard to think of a film in theatres right now that has this much fun being what it is. An impressive feat given the year’s offerings of fun box-office breakers. Nearly as sharp as its title, but thankfully far softer to enjoy.