Rian Johnson’s modern whodunit Knives Out has premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here’s Total Film’s review...
It’d be tempting to call Knives Out a palate-cleanser film for writer/director Rian Johnson, given that it’s a scaled-down passion project arriving between Star Wars juggernauts: after The Last Jedi and before Johnson oversees an entirely new trilogy in the galaxy far, far away. But to call it a palate-cleanser would be doing it a disservice, as it’s much more than just a blockbuster antidote, and there’s nothing throwaway about this meticulously crafted murder mystery.
An old-fashioned whodunit given some contemporary frills (it’s set in the present day), Knives Out is inspired by the Agatha Christie template and understands what makes that formula tick. It’s very funny – but while the characters are broadly drawn and played, it’s not a parody. It’s an extremely satisfying confection, hitting the spot far more effectively than Kenneth Branagh’s somewhat stodgy Murder On The Orient Express remake.
Another thing it has in common with the golden era of whodunits is its stellar ensemble. Daniel Craig heads up the investigation as Benoit Blanc, “the last of the gentleman sleuths”. Frequently chomping on cigars that are as much of a mouthful as his Kentucky-fried accent, Craig throws himself into it with gusto, and he’s a delight. It’s a pleasure to see him having so much fun. From that pitch-perfect name to his theatrical methods and love of a drawing-room gathering, he could’ve been lifted from the pages of a literary classic.
The supporting cast features the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Toni Collette, all enjoying themselves enormously. It’s infectious. As always with a mystery like this – the type where the layers are gradually peeled back, and scenes are frequently revisited to shed new light on the unfolding case – it’s advisable to go in cold on plot details (put away your magnifying glass, you won’t find any here). In traditional style, the mystery is contained in a single location: in this case, the country pile of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The imposing Massachusetts mansion is stuffed with ornaments, artefacts and posters for Harlan’s bestselling mystery novels. When Harlan dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances after his 85th birthday party, Benoit Blanc is called in to investigate alongside police detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and state trooper Wagner (Noah Segan).
The branches of the investigation extend out across the family tree, and also include Marta (Ana de Armas), a nurse who acts as Harlan’s carer. Needless to say that from the outset, fingers are being pointed in multiple directions – Harlan’s publishing career amassed a fortune, so there are millions of motives at play. From Evans’ bratty, entitled grandson, to Collette’s wellness-guru daughter-in-law, there are a lot of Harlan’s strained relations to unpick.
And while the mystery grips, it’s also ludicrously entertaining. The amount of fun that everyone’s having damn near radiates off the screen. There’s a steady stream of laugh-out-loud dialogue, with Craig getting the chewiest lines. A sense of self-awareness is also omnipresent – “The guy practically lives in a Clue board,” mutters Elliott at one point – but never in a way that undercuts the game that’s afoot.
Despite Nathan Johnson’s arch, spiky-stringed score and David Crank’s mahogany-panelled production design, there are reminders that we’re in the present day, with references to social media, Netflix and “children in cages”. Commentary on the treatment of immigrants also emerges in due course. For all of its throwback qualities in terms of style and form, Knives Out is rooted in the now. Subtle social satire is another element that’s very much in keeping with Christie’s work.
All the fun of of the set-up and the indulgence in the environment would come to practically naught if the mystery itself didn’t hang together gratifyingly. But stick with Knives Out and it delivers once all of the puzzle pieces have been picked up and slotted into place. Ultimately it feels like a game — where the pieces land and how the clues unfold is the key thing here, trumping any bigger emotional truths — but it’s a game that the audience is in on, and it’s a blast of viewing pleasure. When all of the pieces are put on the board with such style and panache, it’s irresistible.