WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Hired by a mysterious, anonymous client, a crack private investigator is called in to investigate what seems to be the open-and-shut case of the suicide of a famous horror novelist.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Knives Out is, frankly speaking, a bit of a bitch to review. It’s the sort of film that you want to go into knowing as little as possible so I need to tread exceptionally carefully around any actual plot or character details that may give the game away. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it, though, is that I’m absolutely dying to see it again, despite knowing all the answers to the various mysteries. That’s not something you can say about a great many whodunits.
After splitting fandom in two with his contentious addition to the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson is back on more familiar ground with an original creation that once again allows him to bring his own unique spin to an established genre. To be fair, though, as a staunch defender of The Last Jedi, I kind of think that he never stopped doing that even in the Star Wars universe, but even if you don’t see Episode VIII as a continuation of Brick and Looper, it’s hard to see Knives Out as anything but.
Modelled quite clearly and quite lovingly on Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries, Knives Out is less a total reinvention of the form than it is a very slight twist on it. There’s little in the way of post-modern winking at the camera, and the mystery is every bit as twisty as the best traditional whodunits but what truly sets it apart from those old classics is the very distinctive personality that Johnson brings to it.
It’s stylish as hell for a start. The first half-hour or so of the film consists almost entirely of interviews between the police and families of the victim, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumber in typically fine form – in flashbacks, of course) with Daniel Craig’s PI, Benoit Blanc, making his presence known more and more as the interviews proceed, but thanks to smart editing, an incredible cast and a pitch-perfect, genuinely hilarious script, it’s about as entertaining a half hour as you’re going to spend in a cinema this year.
And it only picks up from there.
For something that goes on well beyond the two-hour mark, it’s astonishing how Johnson doesn’t let the film drag for a moment. The mystery is brilliantly handled and surprises at every turn. You never quite know where it’s going to go – and the fact that the mystery seems to resolve itself less than a third of the way in and then keeps on going is only the beginning of the film taking gleeful pride in wrong-footing you. The real trick, though, is that Knives Out is so mercilessly entertaining that even if you figure out any of the twists in advance, you won’t find your attention slacking in the slightest.
The film isn’t technically a comedy, but it is, flat out, one of the funniest films of the year with crackling dialogue and instantly memorable characters who are as well-drawn as they are larger-than-life. The cast barely even needs to be mentioned as Knives Out contains the largest selection of a-list actors this side of Avengers: Endgame. Worth noting, though, is Daniel Craig who with a southern drawl (his character’s French name is no doubt a tribute to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot) and an effortlessly suave charm, has seldom been more enjoyable in a role.
Interestingly, though, despite the big names all around her, this is actual Ana de Arma’s film through and through. She is the film’s POV character, and it is her healthcare worker, Marta, who is the only relatively well-adjusted human being in a cast full of eccentrics, weirdos and solipsists – though even she has a very amusing physical quirk that proves vital to the unfolding mystery. De Armas has been making a real name for herself in American films like Blade Runner 2049; Knock, Knock; and Hands of Stone but this is her first real leading English-language role, and she acquits herself brilliantly against a number of seasoned, veteran actors and young up-and-comers.
Knives Out, however, isn’t just a fresh, wildly entertaining, and immaculately made whodunit, but it actually has a surprising amount of substance to it. The class warfare angle is hard to miss, even if the film is having way too much fun to sit around and dwell on such weighty matters, but that’s not really the stand out theme here. Get past the often reprehensible characters, the snarky wit and the gruesome apparent suicide, and you find a film that is all about – get this – values and the worth of human goodness. More than that, I cannot say, though, for fear of spoilers...
As if it wasn’t enough that Knives Out is a funny, unexpected and delightful romp, not to mention an original blockbuster Hollywood film that isn’t a remake or part of a franchise (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s also a thematically rich and thoroughly moral film with its heart firmly in the right place. It’s one of the best films of the year, to be sure, but more unexpectedly, it’s also a defiant response to the cynicism and despair that has gripped the public consciousness for longer than most of us would want to admit.
For something so old fashioned in so many ways, its arrival could hardly be timelier.