Whodunnits have been a part of the popular consciousness longer than any of us can remember. Inspired by classic murder mysteries such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, as well as films such as Deathtrap, Clue and Gosford Park, writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has delivered a devious throwback to classic whodunnit storytelling with a refreshingly modern edge.
Knives Out opens with famous mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) being found dead with his throat slit in an apparent suicide on the night of his 85th birthday. A local detective (Lakeith Stanfield), a state trooper (Noah Segan) and a renowned private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) are sent to discover if it was really a suicide or whether foul play was afoot.
Blanc believes everyone is a suspect which means he must figure out each member of the Thrombey family, and they’re…a lot. You have Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs his late father’s publishing company, where Harlan was adamant no adaptations were to be made of his work despite Walt’s insistence. And his teenage son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), is also a neo-Nazi to boot! Joni (Toni Collette) is Harlan’s lifestyle guru daughter-in-law who’s desperate for more money for herself and her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford)—who’s going through college. Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlan’s eldest daughter, a real estate mogul who runs her own company with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson). There’s also Hugh (Chris Evans)—the son of Richard and Linda. He’s a certified playboy who’s coasted off his family’s wealth and never had to work a day in his life.
In short, they’ve all got their nasty sides, and have undeservedly thrived off the success and wealth of Harlan. In many ways, it’s similar to Ready or Not’s conceit—a film centred around a rich family who revel in their wealth. The Thrombey’s are a family who believe wealth is their birthright and insist to themselves that their wealth is entitled to them.
The Thrombey’s may be all larger-than-life characters, but the real wildcard of this whole narrative is Marta (Ana de Armas)—Harlan’s caregiver. In a story filled with nasty, vindictive, and conniving people, she’s a sincere, kind, and caring soul. She emerges as the real protagonist of this story—someone the audience can actually connect with in a sea of two-faced people who are in it for themselves. Different members of the Thrombey family will insist that she’s a part of theirs one minute, only to disown her the next. It’s evidence of the façade of comfort this family seemingly provides, when they’re really a chaotic group of people. In their case, wealth can’t buy friendliness. Marta also becomes Blanc’s most important ally as someone whose involuntary reaction is to vomit if she tells a lie. It’s a character beat which is used perfectly throughout.
What Johnson does is lay his cards out very early in terms of the mystery aspect. So early in fact, that it’ll undoubtedly catch many off guard and have audiences furiously wondering where on earth the story could possibly go from that point. I was a bit startled, but as the film continues, it reveals itself as such a brilliant choice. While it seems that he’s laid everything out too early, Johnson gradually peels back tiny layers throughout to see the whole picture, all while never cheating the audience. In true whodunnit fashion, miniscule elements are brought back into the story and given slightly new contexts to make everything fall perfectly into place, and nothing ever feels like a forced cop out.
Johnson is a filmmaker who loves to give fresh twists on classic formulas and deconstruct each genre or franchise he works on. Brick is a classic detective noir, only it’s set in the parameters of a high school. Looper is a time travel story which also has a strong noir, character-driven focus. The most notable example of his formula twisting is Star Wars: The Last Jedi—a film which brilliantly took everything that J. J. Abrams set up in its predecessor and moved the characters and story in completely unexpected and emotionally-resonant places. For a monolithic blockbuster in one of the biggest franchise’s ever, that’s no mean feat. Knives Out is undoubtedly a throwback to classic Agatha Christie-like storytelling, but it contains a coating of modern political discussion which feels important to flesh out the nasty personalities of characters, but never overrides the purely fun nature of this story.
Given the depths of the film’s A-list cast, it’s de Armas who comes out shining the brightest. Fabulous in the criminally underseen Blade Runner 2049, this is the first film where the weight of it is on her shoulders and she is the glue that holds this ensemble of crazy characters together. She’s so wonderful because you truly believe Marta’s warmth, kindness and sincerity. There’s a real vulnerability to her performance when Marta as a character is caught up in the chaos of this story. If de Armas hadn’t delivered in this film, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does. With a slew of big roles coming up—including reuniting with Daniel Craig in his last Bond adventure, No Time to Die, as well as playing Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde—de Armas’ star is only going to continue to rise.
It’s so obvious that Daniel Craig is having a blast as Benoit Blanc, donning a thick southern accent which makes his twang in 2017’s Logan Lucky seem slight in comparison. It’s a cartoonish character, but that’s what Johnson wants to deliver. Blanc is described as ‘one of the last great gentlemen sleuths’ and the character radiates a classic, infectious energy whenever he’s on screen, and Craig is on board with all of the character’s eccentricities.
Singling out members of the rest of the ensemble would feel unfair because each one gets their moment to shine, but once Chris Evans shows up at the half-way point, the film kicks up another gear. There’s so many enjoyable layers to what he does in this role. Without discouraging his fantastic MCU work, this may be his best performance since Snowpiercer—and it may even top that.
What Knives Out proves once again is that Johnson is a filmmaker who doesn’t want to play by the rules. He lays the groundwork immediately and puts you in a comfortable place, only to pull out the rug from underneath earlier than you’d ever imagine. He’s a filmmaker that doesn’t want to place his audiences in a predictable and formulaic groove. It’s far more fun to play with expectations, and he constructs this story so well that you can’t help but go along with the hijinks. Along with its rollicking story, it’s filled with subtle bursts of humour, including a hilarious monologue about donuts which will be wrongly quoted until the end of time. Johnson also delivers one of the best final frames in recent memory.
It’s a whodunnit for sure, but it’s not nearly close to your traditional one. And yet, this is still a brilliant piece of original filmmaking which truly deserves to launch a whole new series of Benoit Blanc mysteries, and it’s evidence of why a director like Rian Johnson is so important to the film landscape today. He’s someone who makes great genre-inspired entertainment first and foremost. But most importantly, he imbues every single one his films with real craft, character, originality and personality not found in far too many studio films released today. Knives Out is no exception to the formula. I say a donut-filled celebration is in order.
Knives Out is in cinemas Thursday 28 November.