In some circles, it’s celebrated when a renowned indie or arthouse director signs up for a major franchise film, as the experience might give them extra clout or increased funds to film more ambitious follow-ups. But that hasn’t been the experience for many franchise directors, who’ve either been convinced to stay with the franchise or have struck out on their own again only to flame out as if they’d lost their talent. Rian Johnson is one of the lucky few exceptions; having written and directed The Last Jedi (2017), he now returns with the serviceable drawing-room mystery Knives Out. It’s a pleasant and mostly fun thriller, though it’s not exactly an artistic leap forward for Johnson.
Somewhere in an elegant manor in the Northeast countryside, widely read crime novelist Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer) has been found dead of an apparent suicide, having seemingly slashed his own throat. Only hours earlier he celebrated his 85th birthday in the mansion with his entire family (featuring a murderers’ row of talent including Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Chris Evans), as well as his trusted nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas). Now, a pair of detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are performing a perfunctory examination, as cutting one’s throat isn’t the most common way to kill oneself. Complicating matters is the mysterious presence of detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who speaks in a cartoonish southern drawl and has been paid by an unidentified client to look into Harlan’s death.
It’s a necessity of the sub-genre of locked-room mysteries that there be plenty of twists and turns and reversals of fortune. Knives Out certainly has some of those, but it suffers from oddly placid plotting. Around the half-way point, the audience already knows for certain that a few of the most important characters are innocent of the crime, and most of what led up to Harlan’s death is known as well. The surprises aren’t all that surprising, especially for viewers paying close attention. Finding the killer doesn’t even seem to be an especially big focus for the film; Johnson’s Brick (2005), which transposed a film noir murder mystery to a contemporary suburban high school, was far more absorbing and twisting than Knives Out ever is.
Adding to the slackness of the plot are a number of missed attempts at humor, many of them deriving from Daniel Craig’s demeanor. He does his best southern Hercule Poirot while Foghorn Leghorning around the mansion, but the humor just doesn’t land. He’s also not very cued in on the state of the mystery, but Johnson doesn’t even take the opportunity to poke fun at his bumbling demeanor. There are some nice comedic performances from the actors playing Harlan’s children, and de Armas is utterly charming as Harlan’s companion. Plummer doesn’t have much screen time, but some flashbacks give some much-needed perspective on his final hours.
Knives Out is a perfectly fine and enjoyable film. But after helming one of the best Star Wars entries ever and directing films and TV episodes that punched far above their weight, it was expected that Johnson’s follow-up would be similarly ambitious. Knives Out feels like a stop-gap film, something he directed while trying to recharge his batteries. Maybe the next project is when he’ll really stretch himself.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15