Film Review | Knives Out: A fine-tuned family feud

Christmas has come early for lovers of lovingly crafted genre cinema, as The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson returns to his comfort zone to deliver an impressively diligent and wildly entertaining ‘locked room’ murder mystery

Star Wars did not deserve Rian Johnson, and I say this as a card-carrying, crying-over-The Rise of the Skywalker-trailer Star Wars fan.

Written and directed by Johnson, The Last Jedi (2017) is unequivocally the most interesting and challenging installment of the saga, and the hard-working, genre-bending filmmaker was pilloried for supposedly heretical creative decisions by a large and vocal segment of the fandom pretty much the moment after that second installment of the ‘new trilogy’ made its way to international big screens.

Well, good riddance to bad rubbish, because Johnson has re-emerged from the drawing board to give us a drawing-room mystery to literally die for, and Knives Out stands as a testament to his erudite love of genre cinema, and his ability to deliver a riveting piece of mainstream entertainment without dumbing down the proceedings even a little bit.

Bestselling and ridiculously wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Chrisopher Plummer) is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party, in what appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide after a shocked housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson) finds him bleeding out in his studio, his throat neatly slashed open.

And while Detective Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) view this as an open and shut case, they are not the only ones with a stake in the investigation. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private detective of enough renown to earn his own New Yorker profile, claims that an anonymous source has hired him to apply his impeccable deductive insights to the case.

So he sits in while Elliot and Wagner question this eccentric band of family members, freshly grieving the death of a patriarch with whom, however, they’ve all had something of a strained relationship. But Blanc’s gimlet eyes – and the expository commentaries delivered in an unforgettable old-world southern drawl – soon zero in on Harlan’s diligent immigrant nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who’s afflicted with a condition that’s manna to any detective: if she tells a lie, she throws up.

Beyond being a perfect piece of murder-mystery fun (made all the more perfect by a sprinkling of postmodern humour that doesn’t rock the boat too far into smug territory), Knives Out is a fully-rounded experience of prestige cinema that in lesser hands would have just coasted along the clout of its decorated cast. But even if he may have the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Chris Evans on his roll-call – along with rock-solid veterans like Plummer and M. Emmet Walsh and inspiring young ‘uns like IT’s Martell and Get Out/Sorry to Bother You’s Stanfield – Johnson keeps his eyes on the prize at all times. Because a good murder mystery demands unquestioning narrative tightness, the script’s the thing, and it ticks along gloriously, offering up one generous twist after another in a way that is both plausible and propulsive. ‘Generous’ is the word, too, because the twists really are delicious gifts, not jolts applied in a panic to keep your eyes from glazing over.

At the centre of it all is Marta. Ana de Armas gives a career-best performance which more than makes good on what is the true protagonist role in this crowded assemblage of talents and criss-crossing angry desires. Even if some of the Thrombeys appear to be more ‘woke’ than others – most notably the ‘SJW’ student Meg (Katherine Langford) and her mindfulness guru mum, Joni (Collette) – they are either ignorant or resentful of her family’s plight as undocumented migrants in the current US political climate, whose supposedly ‘moderate’ strands are exposed in an excruciating post-dinner diatribe by Harlan’s son-in-law Richard (Johnson), and whose impact on the current generation is personified in the bifurcating figures of ‘liberal snowflake’ Meg and ‘alt-right troll’ Jacob (Martell), the creepily well-dressed pre-teen and son to Walt (Michael Shannon), who inherited his father’s publishing arm.

But this layer of political commentary isn’t forcefully caked-on. It’s not even a layer. It’s a fitting piece of the Thrombey puzzle – it is part and parcel of the same privilege that provides ample fodder for both its gloriously neo-gothic mise-en-scene and tight and joyously ticking-along plot machine. It’s also a machine that seeks to grind the likes of Marta and her family under its boot, which gives a shot of adrenaline to our erstwhile heroine.

The verdict

Wry and classy entertainment of the kind Rian Johnson has managed to dish out here would make for a welcome gift at any time, but it’s all the more refreshing when it comes nestled in a sea of oversaturated franchises and tired reboots. Making the best out of an already-excellent cast and wrapping the experience around inspired editing and production design, this is a diabolically delicious and sneakily clever concoction that will leave a naughty grin on your face long after the credits have rolled.