Taking a brief well-earned break from the creative restrictions of the Star Wars universe, Rian Johnson has treated us to a wonderfully devious Agatha Christie homage, a freeing exercise that shows just how much he can achieve without Lucasfilm breathing down his neck. The Last Jedi director (and soon to be creator of an all-new Star Wars trilogy) is a self-confessed fan of the mystery author and has managed to concoct a contemporary whodunnit that both respects and revises the subgenre. In other words, with Knives Out, he’s killed it.
The setup is one we all know: the gothic house in the middle of the countryside, the rich family with a pile of bitter grudges and, most importantly, the dead patriarch with a fortune to leave behind. But Johnson knows that we know this all too well and knows we know he knows this too so knows he has to work that much harder to outfox us by knowing more than we think we might know. His film is a delicious challenge to well-trained armchair detectives and there’s a dizzying joy in watching him and his cast play with the rules, leaving us in the dark to figure out where it’s all going. It’s unexpected in ways that it would be cruel for me to spoil so I’ll keep things intentionally vague.
The body is that of Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer), a wildly successful mystery writer whose 85th birthday party proves to be his last. His throat has been slashed in what authorities are deeming a suicide because as a murder it would be an impossible crime. The evidence doesn’t support the idea of foul play but private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired by an unknown figure to investigate this very possibility. He conducts a string of interviews with the dysfunctional Thrombrey clan to figure out who might have a motive but quickly discovers it would be easier to figure out who doesn’t.
As is standard with the Christie adaptations that inspired him, Knives Out is stacked with stars but rather than aiming for the biggest names, regardless of fit, Johnson has opted for recognisable yet incisive casting, each actor perfectly matched to their role. There’s Jamie Lee Curtis as the vaingloriously “self-made” daughter with a penchant for a vicious one-liner, Don Johnson as her doltish husband, Chris Evans as her spoilt son, Michael Shannon as her bookish brother and Toni Collette as her Instafamous sister-in-law. Johnson also finds room for Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas as Harlan’s loyal nurse, It’s Jaeden Martell as a Trump-supporting grandson, 13 Reason Why’s Katherine Langford as a Trump-loathing granddaughter and Lakeith Stanfield as the cop working with Craig to figure all of this out. Everyone in the cast is having a ball and it’s especially fun to see actors such as Lee Curtis, Craig, Collette and Evans show off their comic prowess, given their mostly dramatic roles of late. There’s also striking work from rising star de Armas who isn’t allowed quite the same amount of fun as her flashier co-stars but leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.
Working from his own original script, Johnson has much fun pulling the strings as well as the rug from underneath us time and time again. There are reveals that tip the standard structure on its head in ways that prove wickedly disorienting and while there’s meta commentary, he avoids smugness. It’s not the empty, slavish homage it could have been as Johnson knows that simply regurgitating the rules with a wink wouldn’t be enough. There’s genuinely thrilling ingenuity here and while some of his attempts to give the film a contemporary, Trump’s America spin are a little too clunky, other similar touches work so well that you’re willing to forget them.
It’s such a rare pleasure to see a director so in love with a genre without slipping into Tarantinoesque fanboy indulgence, remembering his audience is bigger than himself and also that his film requires both head and heart. He’s next set to return to a galaxy far far away but after watching Knives Out, I wish he’d stay with us for a bit longer.