Usually relegated to dinner parties and re-runs of Murder, She Wrote, murder mysteries have never really been a mainstay of cinema, occasionally flirting with becoming a trend before slinking off once more into the realm of TV. The subgenre can often come across as too old-fashioned, but it’s with this in mind that Rian Johnson has made Knives Out an incredibly fun experience.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy crime novelist, is celebrating his 85th birthday with members of his extended and incredibly dysfunctional family. When they find him dead the morning after, seasoned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called upon to investigate.
So far, so very Law & Order. However, instead of making a dry procedural, Johnson wisely avoids the dramatics which can accompany such a crime thriller, choosing instead to plant the film’s tongue firmly in its cheek. Knives Out is incredibly self-aware, whilst also paying tribute to classic murder mystery writers — most notably Agatha Christie — preventing it from becoming too stuffy.
Take, for example, Craig’s performance as the detective: Benoit Blanc is heavily influenced by Christie’s Poirot, notable for his exaggerated Belgian accent and flare, and Johnson takes this as an opportunity to create such a character as his own. Bestowed with the thickest of Kentucky accents, Craig has an immense amount of fun acting dumber than he actually is and keeping his cards close to his chest. It’s a breath of fresh air to see Craig flex his skills past the tough-on-the-outside Bond, even if his accent is occasionally a tad distracting.
Subverting expectations also applies to Chris Evans, here playing Harlan’s grandson, Ransom. Spending the past eight years (albeit well) as a straight-laced patriot has perhaps masked the idea that Evans is more versatile. One can imagine both Evans and Johnson relishing the chance for him to play such a trust-fund douchebag — Evans in order to flex his acting muscles, and Johnson for going against the grain. This pays off immensely.
Written by Johnson, the script is sharp-witted and often very funny, with an early set-up keeping things engaging and a little more complex than they seem. What makes it far more interesting, however, is the film’s subtext; without revealing too much, Knives Out can be read as a comment on America’s racial tensions and today’s white nationalists, as well as extreme political leanings, both liberal and conservative.
It’s not without its faults; with a group of characters such as these, there isn’t as much screen time to go around, and some members of the family are explored less than others. For instance, there is less time with the deceased’s daughter, Linda, and daughter-in-law, Joni (played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette respectively), than one might expect, given the immense talent of both actors. Knives Out also occasionally provides too much information too soon, watering down the mystery — but thankfully there is still enough to unpick prior to Blanc’s final revelations.
After the tumultuous reaction to Johnson’s last film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the versatile director should be able to breathe a sigh of relief. In an age in which “fun” films (not to mention murder mysteries) are few and far between, he has succeeded in making an enjoyable lark for the cinema — as well as one of the most satisfying final shots of a movie this year.