During the Christmas season, when relatives are wound as tightly as tinsel on the tree and cards are diplomatically deployed as seasonal peace offerings, there could be nothing more comforting than a film about a family more dysfunctional than our own. Rian Johnson’s new murder mystery, Knives Out, is the perfect festive thriller, an offbeat whodunit full of sharp blades and even sharper quips.
The feature follows the Thrombey family through personal tragedy after their patriarch, wealthy detective fiction writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found dead from apparent suicide. But things may not be as they seem, and the appearance of renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) at the scene leads to a series of unsavoury discoveries.
Though the film is undoubtedly an homage to Agatha Christie, what elevates it above some of the bleaker works of this genre is its unerring sense of humour. Johnson’s screenplay is marvellously self-aware, from the maid who nearly drops the tray when she discovers the dead body to the parodied Poirot-esque relationship between Craig’s constantly pontificating Blanc and Lakeith Stanfield’s eye-rolling police officer Lieutenant Elliot. It’s a beautifully observed picture from start to finish, the timing explosive as conflicting testimonials intercut with perfect pacing. Dramatic irony is used to stunning effect, with the audience never quite sure who’s holding the cards in this cinematic Cluedo. A sculpture made from knives lurks behind our characters; this is a bloodline built on backstabbing, a dynasty founded and funded through tales of death and deceit.
Of course, what really racks up the intrigue is a truly incredible ensemble cast. While recent successful Christie adaptations such as And Then There Were None and Ordeal By Innocence have triumphed thanks to strong casting, where these shows felt alienating, Johnson’s movie has an endearing edge, a fundamental heart that keeps us close to the characters. Ana de Armas is enchanting as Harlan’s caregiver Marta Cabrera – cursed with possibly the most inconvenient and ingenious character trait in any murder mystery to date, an inability to lie without vomiting – while Craig drives the movie by finding a captivating middle ground between his piercing blue stare and his disarming Southern drawl. Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson all have great fun bouncing off one other with varying degrees of quirky and creepy narcissism. Christopher Plummer’s one primary scene is memorable enough to keep him present throughout the entire film, while Chris Evans emerges spectacularly from his sincere Captain America cocoon to show true comedy flair.
Knives Out succeeds because Johnson recognises that even a story about cold-blooded killing can be crafted with heart and humour. With his latest movie, the filmmaker proves that he doesn’t need the sci-fi spectacle and special effects of Star Wars: The Last Jedi or the makeup and time travel theatrics of Looper: he is able to craft a spellbinding mystery through storytelling alone.
Knives Out is released nationwide on 27th November 2019.
Watch the trailer for Knives Out here: