It’s taken time to properly piece together my thoughts on Knives Out. It’s the sort of film that, because it’s been so carefully thought out, lends itself to equally careful consideration. Moulded unmistakably on Agatha Christie’s work, it’s a loving homage to the whodunit genre and Rian Johnson has proven himself to be a master of motifs, whipping back to hit you when you’re least expecting it. He has crafted a spectacular thriller with donut metaphors galore that is bound to go down as an espionage classic.
Director: Rian Johnson
Release date: September 9, 2019 (TIFF); October 8, 2019 (LFF)
The wealthy Thrombey family live in modern-day Norfolk, Massachusetts, in a great, Gothic mansion of a house that absolutely radiates with eccentricity. The antique collectibles are instantly lovable and set the tone immediately, underscored by a wonderfully melodramatic overture. As far as cinematography goes, it often feels like a Lanthimos film. Think back to The Favourite, when jaunty angles and wacky figures populated the set in abundance. Here it’s much the same, and the quirks of the characters are weaponised to create a sense of danger and tension at any given moment.
The entire family are interrogated over the death of head of the household, grandfather Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). This wealthy, eccentric crowd has a volatile dynamic, as dysfunctional as in Arrested Development and as nutty as The Addams Family. If it’s dynastic power-play you’re seeking, look no further. And it tackles the notion of masculinity in crisis: we must ask why a family man has to suffer such an untimely demise, surrounded by a family that purportedly has his best interests at heart.
Left to their own devices, they’re each at each other’s throats and it’s a joy to watch, made up as it is of a stellar cast: lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Colette), rogue son and trust fund playboy Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), sister Fran (Edi Patterson), real-estate mogul Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her publishing heir husband Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), college-bound granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford), 16-year-old Internet nazi Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Donna (Riki Lindhome), and desperate son-in-law Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson).
Caught in the middle of all this is the family’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). The poor girl is subject to heinous family politics, to overt racism and anti-immigration sentiment, and to being subordinated to the family time and again. Yet because of her good character, she continually shows her kind and compassionate nature. The film is as much an examination of white privilege and thinly-veiled institutional racism as it is a murder mystery, catapulting the genre right up to the minute. Marta also has ‘an aversion to mistruth’ — she can’t lie or she’ll projectile vomit.
Last but not least, there’s Daniel Craig as the famed detective Benoit Blanc. Flanked by Lt. Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), this elusive frontrunner sports an unmistakable Southern drawl which Johnson had in mind when writing the screenplay — although it takes a little getting used to, Craig soon settles into character. With the unenviable task of interrogating the madcap gaggle, his job is made infinitely more difficult with the characters’ unique traits and shifting narratives.
What’s fantastic about Rian Johnson is his commitment to genre: his cineliteracy is clear, and parallels to adaptations of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express are a given. But it’s not only crime capers he reveals to know intimately: Knives Out heralds the conventions of film noir, too. The cynical, moody genre is so distinct that it warrants its own discourse, but it rarely gets the time and attention it deserves, 70 years after it first appeared in American cinema. Here, it’s updated and subverted to comedic effect while keeping the structural integrity.
In a Screen Talk at the London Film Festival, he spoke about the tendency within the noir genre to overstuff a feature with red herrings. While he appreciates them, he didn’t feel the need to go to such lengths: rather, he wanted viewers to figure it out for themselves, and his respect for the audience is evident in Knives Out. He uses establishing shots to position us within a scene, and talking heads to gain different perspectives, but the comparison of opposing testimonies is where the real meat is. In a use of montage that would make Kuleshov proud, Johnson pits family members against each other so that we no longer know what’s real and what’s not.
His first feature Brick, a teenage neo-noir years ahead of standard festival fare, set a precedent for his further work and his embodiment of genre studies. In the years since Johnson has coursed his sophomore years through Looper and landed the gig with The Last Jedi — in his words, arguably the biggest piece of genre filmmaking possible. His passion for Dashiel Hammet-inspired narrative, full of information and direct confrontation with the viewer, is evident in full force here in Knives Out. A decade in the making, it’s a film that rewards you for paying attention to detail.
There’s an appealing barbour wax jacket and boots aesthetic to the film, and a spectacular set piece of a throne surrounded by a great circular frame of inverted knives. The plot leads us through twists and turns that are a delight to experience, with plenty of the old cliche to please a crowd: a mug of tea dropped in shock, an overblown car chase, the sound of an antique clock chiming in a silent room. It’s self-reflexive pastiche that still takes itself serious enough not to slip into parody.
When the ensemble come together, it’s spectacular. Everyone is a suspect, and the deeper Benoit Blanc, Lt. Elliott and the crew go into the mystery, the more family tensions are stretched and the uglier, more sinister colours of the family show. There’s a certain element of jeopardy that ensure the stakes are always high.
I will say that not all of the film blew me away as I thought it would. Sometimes it seemed a little over-simplistic for a director of Johnson’s calibre. Yet (avoiding spoilers), the film ends on a deliciously ambiguous note, turning everything from the last 2 hours and 10 minutes on its head. It’s not a quick, throwaway narrative: in taking time and labouring meticulously over the detail of each take, Johnson in turn demands the same attention and commitment from his viewers, and rewards them with a film that’s impossible not to want to see again immediately.