Acclaimed murder-mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), he of such literary hits as ‘The Menagerie Tragedy’, is turning 85. But his birthday celebrations are marred by the small fact that he’s discovered dead and bloodied in bed. Can freelance detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) crack the case before the killer strikes again?
How does one let off steam after a gruelling experience making one of the most anticipated films of all time, and the even more gruelling experience of weathering feedback of that film from people with Twitter handles such as @sithmaster81? Easy: you kill someone. After sending his camera whizzing around the galaxy in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s next step has been to go smaller, much smaller, largely confining his follow-up movie to the creaky corridors and dim chambers of a Massachusetts mansion. The result, Knives Out, is a sly, wry and nimble homage to the murder mysteries of yesteryear, with a modern spin. And it’s exactly as fun as you’d hope.
It may be littered with references to classic mysteries — here a clip of Murder She Wrote on a TV, there a namecheck for John Watson. But it never feels like a creaky throwback, à la the recent redo of Murder On The Orient Express. For one, it’s set in the modern day, with one conversation overtly alluding to Trump (though he’s never mentioned by name) with such lines as, “They’re putting children in cages!” and, “Take off your red cap, Richard.” Among the roll-call of suspects is a Twitter troll, the kind of man-baby who probably gets upset about porgs. This is a world where iPhones exist, and the musical Hamilton, and, as one unexpected one-liner reveals, the Edgar Wright film Baby Driver.
At the same time, Johnson knows not to wander too far from the tropes of such classic whodunnits as Sleuth and Deathtrap, instead delighting in cranking them up to delirious heights. The Gothic abode in which his suspects are confined looks like it’s been interior-designed by Nicolas Cage on a spending spree. Owned by the mysterious, murdered murder-mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), it’s decked out with such ghoulish accoutrements as crystal skulls, creepy oil paintings, art that resembles giant eyeballs and, yes, an enormous ring of stabby implements. (Set decorator David Schlesinger vies for the title of crew MVP, along with costume designer Jenny Eagan, responsible for fitting out the cast with the year’s most resplendent knitwear.)
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It quickly becomes apparent that Johnson has more than daggers and clues on his mind: the mansion is a stand-in for America itself.
Matching the overblown old-schoolness of the sets is the film’s detective. He may have been profiled in The New Yorker, but Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc (“The last of the gentlemen sleuths”) is an enjoyably ridiculous, tweed-clad creation who seems to have been summoned from the pages of an antique pulp novel. His Deep South accent is pure bouillabaisse. He stands in shadows, plinks single keys on pianos, and sits staring into fires. He says things like, “Something is afoot with this whole affair.” Craig has rarely been this much fun, and a return outing for the character would be most welcome. Suggestion: a movie that pits him against Craig’s peroxided felon Joe Bang from Logan Lucky.
Blanc, though, isn’t the movie’s core character. The starry ensemble cast gleefully embody the various vipers who have gathered at the house, desperate for a share of Harlan’s wealth. Toni Collette is particularly memorable as hippy-dippy Instagram influencer Joni, as is Chris Evans as family black sheep Ransom, a foul-mouthed freeloader whose very scarves look dickish. But Johnson’s masterstroke is to tell the tale through the perspective of an outsider, South American caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas), who was Harlan’s closest confidant and who becomes Benoit’s erstwhile sidekick.
Through her, and de Armas’ superb performance, it quickly becomes apparent that Johnson has more than daggers and clues on his mind: the mansion is a stand-in for America itself, with its factions, institutionalised racism (none of the rapacious clan can agree on which country exactly Marta is from) and many shades of venality. The political subtext is clear but not laboured, exposing a whole different kind of foul play.
It’s not a perfect crime. With a cast-list that’s unnecessarily large (Benoit even gets two cop underlings, neither of whom make much of an impression), a few of the actors are wasted, and some of the dialogue suffers from over-snark. But it comes close enough to be a major crowdpleaser, a snaky and sumptuous winter treat with a nice line in acidic zingers. Over to you, Jason Bateman and Clue.
Rian Johnson put his own spin on Dashiell Hammett with 2005’s Brick. Now he’s Johnsonised the work of Agatha Christie, with equally enjoyable results. Knives Out is snappy, meta and, yes, sharp.