Starring: Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Don Johnson (Cold in July), Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You), Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), Jaeden Martell (It), Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World)
Writer/Director: Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes
Release Date: 27th November (US, UK)
Much in the same vein as Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, Rian Johnson is not a director who likes being tied down to a genre or aesthetic. He’s a cunning deconstructionist of whatever school he finds himself in, but he doesn’t exactly refashion it in his image like Edgar Wright or Quentin Tarantino tend to. Instead, Johnson slips into a genre like putting on a hand puppet, respects the conventions of the world he’s found himself in, and proceeds to make a spectacular example of that kind of film whilst working in subtle improvements and commentary; the closest comparison I can surmise is that he’s like vintage Shane Black but more quaint and less abrasive.
After delivering his unique takes on film noir, time travel and Star Wars, Johnson now turns his attention to one of the most traditional genres ever conceived: the whodunit. It’s a classic storytelling formula that has been revised and reattempted to the point of parody, and yet somehow Johnson has again struck gold in a well-mined field. Knives Out is not only one of the best films of 2019, but quite possibly Rian Johnson’s greatest cinematic achievement to date.
It’s very hard to discuss the plot of Knives Out without immediately treading on spoilers, but it is undoubtedly one of the most finely crafted and whipsmart screenplays I have ever seen brought to the screen. It’s a story that is very aware that the audience knows the conventions of the murder mystery and seeks to toy with everyone from the totally perplexed to the clue-hunting master sleuths. There is practically a plot swerve every five minutes, constantly keeping you on your toes and questioning again and again every piece of information. The way the film plays with time and perspective to withhold and reveal information is second to none, and no clue ever feels like a concrete certainty.
The pacing and structure is absolutely masterful with never a dull scene or wasted moment, and it’s all held together by corking dialogue at every turn that is sure to be quoted and memed for years to come. Johnson’s knowledge and savviness of not just cinema but of culture and politics is on display on all fronts, coating the film in all kinds of subtext that’ll fuel all manner of think pieces and video essays across the Internet (for example, there is a strong argument to be made that the entire film is simply Johnson’s middle finger to the toxic backlash against The Last Jedi). If there is any way to sum up Knives Out without entirely spoiling it, it is simply this: it is everything you want it to be whilst delivering absolutely nothing you expect.
If you’re going to even attempt a compelling whodunit, you need a varied and fabulous cast of suspects to fill out your cast, and Knives Out has certainly spared no expense in filling out its roster with the perfect actor in every role. As the drawling detective Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig continues his recent journey into compelling characters with bizarre accents and creates one of the most fascinating and yet down-to-earth cinematic sleuths in recent memory. Blanc is a theatrical and almost ludicrous character, and yet he is far from the master investigator his demeanour would suggest, and Craig balances that weight between fiction and reality to perfect comic effect.
However, Blanc is not the star of the film, with that honour instead unsuspectingly falling to Ana de Armas as the timid nurse Marta. She works as a perfect grounding foil to a cast full of eccentric and larger-than-life characters and, though she plays the role straight as an arrow, Armas still ends up just as charming and hilarious as every other cast member. There is so much more to say about her character arc and her importance to the film’s metatext, but that’s a topic for another spoiler-filled day.
It’s hard to think of it now after nearly a decade of being the all-American golden boy, but Chris Evans used to be the go-to for playing cocky douchebags and it’s fantastic to see him return to that well. As Ransome, Evans is exactly the kind of character you hate to love and he steals every scene he’s in. Toni Collette is a delight as always as a leeching Gwyneth Paltrow wannabe, and the bickering dynamic of Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson could be a movie all on its own.
Michael Shannon is great and responsible for some of the film’s best line deliveries, and though his screen time is brief Christopher Plummer is absolutely perfectly cast as the tired patriarch fed up with his family’s nonsense. The only cast member who feels a little underserved is Jaeden Martell as Shannon’s alt-right preppy son Jacob, especially considering the film’s political subtext, but he does a great subdued job with what he’s given and avoids turning the character into an exaggerated stereotype.
Unlike recent murder mysteries trying to aesthetically distance themselves from the tropes and clichés, Knives Out bathes itself in the iconography of sprawling secret-filled mansions and detectives garbed in tweed in a very tongue-in-cheek manner. Everything feels perfectly crafted to accentuate the grimly playful ambience of the piece, from the extravagance of Plummer’s knife-adorned parlour to the fineness of Evans’ wardrobe of woolly jumpers. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography is lusciously rich in dark wintery colours, Bob Ducsay’s editing accentuates the wit and timing already abundant in the dialogue, and Nathan Johnson’s overly dramatic score keeps you on your toes whilst reminding you not to take any of this particularly seriously.
If the use of a clip from Murder, She Wrote isn’t enough to clue you in that Knives Out is incredibly self-aware, then perhaps this isn’t the movie for you. This is a classic murder mystery caper with a facetious postmodern point of view; it looks and feels timeless and yet its voice is quintessentially 2019. Whilst perhaps not as overt about its themes, it has the same witty and sharp commentary of Jordan Peele’s Get Out as it similarly takes aim at privilege and class. Whilst the idea of further adventures with Benoit Blanc is certainly tempting, Knives Out is absolutely compelling as a standalone story, and overall this could end up being an even greater career-defining piece for Rian Johnson than even The Last Jedi. With that said, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with when he jumps back into that galaxy far, far away…
FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!