Updated: Dec 21, 2021
| Reviewed by James Breach |
I admit I put off watching this movie. As a huge fan of the murder mystery genre in general (and that cast!), I couldn’t resist reading the synopsis online when it came out and I realised I would not get to the cinema to watch it. Knowing the ending of a movie is usually the kiss of death, and no sleight of hand or other deception can distract from the inevitable conclusion that you know what is closing in. However, on this occasion, that knowledge would have absolutely zero bearing on my opinion. I eventually relented and, intrigued to see what the fuss was all about, witnessed one of the best films of the last few years.
Johnson is so good at creating a fully fleshed out scene, that your investment in it is almost guaranteed. Whether it be the reveal of a killer or a red herring’s story, nothing tears you away from the story unfolding in front of you. A return to form for Rian Johnson after the polarising Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) was an intriguing prospect to say that least. Looper (2012) was the sign of a man with something different to say and Knives Out (2019) is the payoff. It is Rian Johnson’s ‘Magnum Opus’ – even surpassing the classic Breaking Bad (2008-2013) episode ‘Ozymandias’ (that being the only TV episode ever to have me on my feet yelling NO at the screen!).
Knives Out is a movie that takes a number of wonderful actors – ranging from the ever-popular Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans, to critical darling Toni Collette – and usurps them with an impressive performance by the relatively unknown Brazilian actress Ana de Armas. (Her previous performance in Eli Roth’s Knock Knock (2015) with Keanu Reeves has been criminally underexposed). Then there is a ‘just should not work, but it does’ performance by Daniel Craig – channelling his inner Foghorn Leghorn to tremendous effect. Craig walks the fine line between being a cringeworthy caricature and an enjoyable part of the ensemble perfectly, when in another actor’s hands, the role could have distracted from the rest of the film. There are also a few additional understated, but fabulous performances from the likes of Christopher Plummer and LaKeith Stanfield. Plummer’s Oscar-winning turn in Beginners (2010) showed us what the movie world misses by overlooking the older generation, and it is wonderful to see him getting the exposure he deserves once again. Chris Evans is perfectly cast as the egotistical grandson (Captain America he is not!) and Michael Shannon’s gormless, trod upon, but slightly menacing Walt, is a wonderful example of an actor pacing himself admirably in a role to produce just the right effect. It is certainly not a film without its foibles, though. De Armas’ Marta – whilst immensely likeable and performed magnificently – is introduced with a very specific character trait which makes lying an impossibility for her (a wonderful idea to circumvent many plot holes). However, as the movie progresses, you can almost see the point at which Johnson realises the limitations of this, and moves the goal posts ever so slightly. To say more would be to give away too much. Ultimately, this is not a major issue, but in a movie of so much ingenuity, nothing imperfect is going to go unnoticed. I also felt certain characters with great potential could have been better utilised and defined. The character of Meg (played by Katherine Langford, seen in the Netflix Original series 13 Reasons Why (2017-2020)), seemed particularly underdeveloped, with Johnson unable, or perhaps unwilling to define which side of the good, bad divide she fell on. She is also given insufficient screen time to help us make that distinction for ourselves. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Linda also suffers a similar fate. I liked her/hated her/felt for her/hated her again. Just when I thought I pegged her role in the film, she seemed to change again, in an inorganic manner. These are, again, small issues in an otherwise wonderful piece of storytelling.
Johnson’s approach to this genre could be viewed as that of an artist making a mosaic, piecing together small parts of a whole, using the direction of the legendary likes of Agatha Christie (the wonderful, long-running London show ‘The Mousetrap’ comes to mind) and Ira Levin to produce a masterful piece of entertainment that delights and surprises. Overall, this is a film that made me feel the full wheel of emotions. It’s funny, sad, suspenseful and exciting all at the same time. When the final credits rolled, I just wanted to press play again. I called this Johnson’s ‘Magnum Opus’, but I would actually go one better and call it his masterpiece. A masterpiece doesn’t have to be perfect. After all, the things we love most in life have their flaws but we love them all the same. I do not think Hollywood has produced a mystery film of this standard in many years. Johnson’s Academy Award nomination is just reward.
Knives Out (2019) is a whodunnit in the classic Agatha Christie mould. Part-Poirot, part-Clouseau with liberal sprinklings of two Jonathan Lynn-directed comedies (most obviously, the classic Clue (1985) and, I thought, the family-fueding comedy Greedy (1994)), writer and director Rian Johnson has crafted a stylish film that makes the most of a star-studded cast. The victim is ageing crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (given customary gravitas by Christopher Plummer), who is found dead in his study. And that is all the plot detail required. By turns mysterious and almost farcical, Johnson playfully and skilfully navigates the well-worn tropes of the genre. Slightly eccentric detective who's always the cleverest person in the room? Check. Oddball and paranoid family (including requisite black sheep) who could all feasibly have a motive? Present and correct.
Daniel Craig is excellent playing against type, revealing previously untapped comedic chops as private Detective Benoit Blanc (a character with surely a post-COVID-19 franchise on the way). The Thrombey family is a winning combination of strait-laced and eccentric. Michael Shannon is the son with the keys to the literary empire; Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter, clinging on to what remains of the family empire. The familial machinations pivot around Thrombey Sr.'s nurse and confidante, Marta, played sweetly and authentically by Ana de Armas (to be seen on screen with Craig again in the delayed Bond film No Time to Die (2021)). Marta is beloved by Harlan and generally seen as an inconvenient nuisance by the family.
Knives Out is as engaging and intricately plotted a murder mystery as one could hope for. It is, however, a film that knows how clever it is, which can be a bit off-putting. I do not think Knives Out is quite the ‘Magnum Opus’ that James is suggesting, but it definitely shows that Rian Johnson is a versatile film-maker, adding another string to his already eclectic bow.