Monday, 23 December 2019

Knives Out (2019)

Daniel Craig investigates in Rian Johnson's amusing Christie-pastiche Knives Out


Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Random Drysdale), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walt Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombrey), Lakeith Stanfield (Lt. Elliot), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey), Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombey), Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner), Frank Oz (Alan Stevens)

Rian Johnson’s film CV is full of interesting (and affectionate) twists on assorted genre films. While many will be most familiar with his controversial and iconoclastic Star Wars film The Last Jedi, Knives Out fits more neatly in with his imaginative twist on time-travel Looper and, most tellingly, his film-noir high-school thriller Brick. Knives Out plays into Johnson’s love of old-school, all-star, Agatha Christie style murder-mysteries. Johnson even pops up before screenings of the film to beg viewers – like Alfred Hitchcock in his prime – to not give away the twist endings. So I won’t do it here. Rian Johnson’s way too sweet to disappoint.

The murder that leads to the mystery is Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer), the film opening a week after his apparent suicide (or was it!?). If everything is so straight forward, then who has anonymously hired “last of the gentlemen sleuths” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death? There seems to be no shortage of motives either: in his last day, Thrombey threatened to expose his son-in-law Richard’s (Don Johnson) affair, cut-off his daughter-in-law Joni’s (Ton Collette) allowance due to theft, fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) as head of his publishing company and cut Richard and his daughter Linda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) playboy son Random (Chris Evans) out of his will. On top of that, his live-in-nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) may have secrets of her own. Will Blanc be able to unpick this web?

Going too far into detail around Knives Out would be to spoil the general sense of fun that Johnson’s film manages to create. The film is not a spoof or parody in any way, but a very intelligent reworking of genre tropes and Agatha Christie style plot twists (a distant house, a mysterious killing, a host of suspects, a barrage of motivations, a house crammed with bolt holes, blackmail, muddy footprints, medicine and acting all get a look in), all governed by an eccentric detective bubbling with his own unique methods for solving a case. It’s all told with a brilliant affection, a wonderful twinkle and a great deal of invention and intelligence from Johnson. 

It’s also a film with a brilliantly assembled plot – and a neat reminder of what a strong writer Johnson is, as well as an inspired stylist. The film creates a host of superb characters for the audience to enjoy and puzzle over – each of them of course attracting a wonderful company of actors, a perfect mix of the skilled and wildcard choices, all of whom pay off. It’s also a structurally daring film: it reveals what it leads many to think is its full hand very early in the film, before subtly revealing that there are multiple mysteries wrapped up within the main mystery (“a doughnut within a doughnut” as Blanc puts it in his own unique way).

And interestingly the film more and more revolves around Marta, its seeming Captain Hastings-figure (or Watson as the film prefers to quote). Played with a charming guilelessness and honesty by Ana de Armas (in more ways than one, since all lies cause Marta to vomit, a joke that sounds crass but is executed perfectly throughout), Marta is the eyes we follow the film’s plot through, meaning we discover events as she does. Marta’s decency and honesty also work as a wonderful device to flag up the increasing hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness of Thrombey’s family. 

The Thrombey clan are an extraordinary group of self-obsessed, greedy and selfishly entitled so-and-sos, who seem to be lacking all expected principles. From Jamie Lee Curtis’ domineering elder daughter, who believes she is a self-made-woman but quickly resorts to bullying when she wants something, to Michael Shannon’s softly spoken but bitterly two-faced Walt, to Toni Collette’s seemingly liberal lady of the people Joni, who is actually as lazy and entitled as all the rest. It’s a host of delightful performances, not forgetting Don Johnson who is a revelation as Curtis’ conniving husband and Chris Evans (having a whale of a time) as the waspishly intelligent, smirking playboy.

Each of the family is as convinced of their own virtue as they are indifferent to those around them. Is it any wonder Thrombey wants to be shot of all of them? Even with the good-natured Marta, none of the family seem to have a clue of anything about her (much as they protest she is part of the family), each of them seemingly naming at random some South American country she hails from and each member in turn telling her confidingly that they would have loved to have had her at the funeral, but they were outvoted by the rest. It makes for a perfect collection of suspects for our detective.

Benoit Blanc himself is a fascinating collection of mannerisms and little touches. The name brings to mind the idea of Hercule Poirot, and Blanc has touches of the man’s arrogance and humanity. Craig has a whale of a time with the part, lacing it with a Southern charm and an eccentric swagger. It’s a part though that actually is a bit of a homage to Columbo, with Blanc also encouraging people to underestimate him and not take him seriously, only to suddenly reveal his insight (including in a last act revelation that is so pure Christie that super-fan Trooper Wagner can barely contain his glee). Blanc is in any case a brilliantly deployed near decoy protagonist, one who Johnson is encouraging us to underestimate as much as most of the characters do.

Thrombey’s murder – and Thrombey has a slight air of Agatha Christie to him, not least the fact that he has written the same number of best-selling books as Christie – is the key to it, and hinges on the overcomplex mind of the great murder writer himself. Johnson’s script is superbly playful, brilliantly written and a delight for murder mystery fans, full of wit and invention and also a very genuinely constructed and intelligent murder mystery. A terrific, playful and witty little treat.

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