After Rian Johnson got decidedly polar opposite reactions for his crack at the Skywalker Saga with The Last Jedi (a heap of internet trolling vs. a billion dollar plus worldwide gross), you would be forgiven in thinking that the title for his new film is a response to some of that negative criticism…
However, what Knives Out actually is, is a first rate retelling of the the whodunit genre where a grave, heinous crime and utterly unsolvable homicide is committed and is left to be solved by some eccentric genius. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marbel, Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Jessica Fletcher and a few others have been keeping this genre ticking over nicely (mostly on television) but aside from Kenneth Branagh’s lush and hugely moustached adaption of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, cinema has been bereft of brand new super sleuth for ages.
Enter Benoit Blanc.
After prolific mystery author Harlan Thromby is found with his throat slashed, seemingly by his own hand, on the night of his 85th birthday, his sizable family gather around after the funeral to answer various questions by a Detective just trying to get the last few loose ends sorted out. As each member spins their events of that night something seems quite amiss. Even though all of the family’s generally stories add up and even though forensics have proven that it was, indeed, Harlen who sliced through his carotid artery, some mystery person has hired celebrity private investigator Benoit Blanc to investigate the death – so investigate he does.
Does Harlen’s daughter and son-in-law, Linda and Morris have an alibi as rock solid as their marriage? How about their black sheep son Ransom, handsome, smart and a massive asshole; does HE have anything to hide? And what about youngest son Walt, who’s been openly clashing with his father about the movie rights to his books and in-law, self help guru Joni – what’s her deal? As the suspects mount up for a crime that may not even be murder, Blanc forms a bond with Harlan’s young nurse – the sweetly innocent Marta who has an odd gastrointestinal quirk that means she is unable to lie – and together they try to untangle the busy web that lay before them despite nothing being as it seems.
With it’s zippy script, intriguing premise and a cast that could act the teeth out of an alligator, Knives out is pure, unadulterated, cinematic fun and probably, pound for pound, on of the best movie experiences of the year.
Obviously with this being a whodunit I can’t (and won’t) divulge too much of the plot – lest I end up like Homer Simpson in that episode where he blurts out the twist in Empire Strikes Back – but needless to say it’s adequately twisty and turny and through some audacious script gymnastics flip the whole genre on it’s head and has you rooting for different people for different reasons at different points throughout the film. It’s a magnificent example of plot juggling that changes what you’re watching and how you’re watching it AS you’re watching it – but then what else would you expect from the director of Brick?
The cast are having a ball – which is infectious – playing the spoilt, horribly un-self aware Thromby clan who attempt to maintain a shaky united front despite being utterly incapable of chipping away at one another through stealthy acts of passive aggression. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and a wonderfully smarmy Chris Evans – obviously relishing playing a prick after years of hurling an adamantium shield and wrong doers – all excell at playing the greedy, snidey relatives barely able to keep themselves from becoming blood thirsty wolves the second the smell of money wafts pass their nostrils but it’s Daniel Craig and Ana De Amas who take the prize. Craig, who always does his best work when he harnesses his considerable talents as a character actor, pumps Benoit Blanc full of Poirot’s overwhelming charisma and Columbo’s crumpled candor and wraps it all up with an accent that could shout down Foghorn Leghorn. As he questions, cajoles and pressures the Thromby’s to actually tell the truth he’s undoubtedly the voice of the movie but bambi-eyed Marta is the heart. Ana De Amas, a character so nice she literally vomits if she lies, is really the secret to what Knives Out is actually about. With this sweet, hard working imigrant who is caught up in the middle of all the chaos the actress is immensely likeable, especially suffering all the subtle putdowns from the unbearably smug family (“I wanted you there at the funeral but I was outvoted” is an excuse she’s given by various family members alongside a running joke of none of them actually bothering to know her actual nationality). As the plot whip cracks it’s way through it’s numerous, enjoyable contortions, she is the only constant in a cast full of overprivileged brats and gold diggers and the actress is more than up to the task.
In fact it would be a real shame if both Marta and Benoit didn’t returned for another complex mystery, especially if it’s even half as good as this one.
An utter hoot from start to finish (the final cracking of the case, despite basically involving people standing around and talking, is as exhilarating as any car chase) and very, VERY funny, Knives Out is just as sharp as it title implies.