Review: Knives Out

27 November 2019

Rian Johnson’s modern murder mystery is the most fun you’ll have in a movie theatre this year, and it’s smart enough that its many pleasures come totally guilt-free.

Knives Out is like a magic trick. It’s entertaining on some bizarre, primal level that just suckers you in – you’re watching, enthralled, as a carefully constructed performance takes place with showmanship and flair, until the final reveal hits and you’re just blown away by where you ended up. I left the theatre going “how did he do that?”

Rian Johnson, the film’s writer-director, is a guy who relishes playing with his audience. He has now made five feature films, each of which sees him step into an established genre and dance around with it. In Brick, it was film noir, in The Brothers Bloom it was crime caper, in Looper it was science fiction, in Star Wars: Last Jedi it was… well, Star Wars, and in Knives Out it’s murder mystery: the Whodunit. And the setup is just peak Agatha Christie.

The wealthy patriarch of the multi-generational Thrombey family dies, and they gather in his grand old mansion as secrets – and potential murder motives – begin to reveal themselves. An eccentric gentleman sleuth arrives on the scene. His name is Benoît Blanc. You can practically smell the musty old paperback pages.

Nevertheless, the movie is grounded firmly in 2019. Netflix deals, Hamilton jokes, and “a tweet about a New Yorker article” all pop up in the film’s wink-and-nod dialogue, with a dexterity that dodges the ‘hitting you over the head with it’ trap that referential narratives of this kind tend to fall into. In fact, much of the film is a high-wire act. Johnson has to balance the humour and the irreverent tone with genuine suspense, and that’s exactly what happens, as the plot twists and turns, constantly resetting the board. He’s incredibly light on his feet, and you can feel his delight in putting together every frame of this film – the movie ticks a lot of whodunit boxes.

The Thrombey mansion – no, the manor – comes complete with a bearskin, an array of ornamental weaponry, and best of all – hounds (to say ‘dogs’ here would almost be an insult to the genre). At one point, Daniel’s Craig’s Detective Blanc cracks out a literal magnifying glass to examine some mud on a carpet. Knives Out lays it on thick, and comes out looking very self-aware, in the vein of Murder by Death or the Cluedo movie. Any given moment in the film is either cementing this ridiculously fun tone, escalating the mystery, or – crucially – making a more nuanced statement that extends beyond the twisty narrative.

To wit, there is a clear heart to this film, and a clear moral angle that Johnson is taking. This is a story that values sincerity and purity of intention. It’s too intrinsically tied to the big reveals of the film to fully break down, but suffice to say we get to chew on questions of privilege, entitlement, and entrenched wealth. Among the Thrombey family are plenty of Get Out-ey performatively woke ‘allies’, and there’s a generous helping of eat-the-rich skewering going on here, but that’s not to say the film is aiming for anything other than a good time. Knives Out aims to be a crowd-pleaser in the least cynical, most pure-entertainment sense of the word. It’s got no shortage of thematic bite where it counts, but that never undermines the fun of the ride Johnson is taking us on.

And all this is to say nothing of the absurd surplus of firepower that is this film’s cast list. These are Hollywood icons. James Bond is in this movie. Captain America is in this movie. Laurie from Halloween is in this movie. Muriel is in this movie. Master Yoda is in this movie. Hannah from 13 Reasons Why is in this movie. Baron Von Trapp is in this movie… The best part is that all of these very familiar actors are clearly having a ball (particularly Daniel Craig, who seems to relish every opportunity to break free of his James Bond, uh, bonds) – everyone’s performance is just slightly over the top, in the best way possible. It’s an outrageously good time, and as the plot flies along, these characters and their actions change in our estimation.

It becomes clear that Rian Johnson’s movie is watertight – it’s all setup and payoff, clever plotting that leads to note-perfect reveals. Its Agatha Christie ancestry is never clearer than when the final flashbacks start and the whole thing clicks slyly, gratifyingly into place. The Rolling Stones’ Sweet Virginia played, the credits rolled, and I was absolutely giddy. There hasn’t been anything quite like it, in quite a while.

And, I mean, Knives Out isn’t a sequel, or reboot, or anything of the sort… It’s some kind of freak miracle to me that the file in Lionsgate’s cabinet marked “strange, hypermodern original murder-mystery script written by a crazy magician ninja” turned into a project that actually got made. As it turns out, Rian Johnson has been speaking in interviews about how the stars aligned for him – he had started it writing early last year, and then after the next James Bond film was delayed, Daniel Craig suddenly had a window – everybody else signed on quickly after that, and the film was wrapped before the end of the year.

Knives Out is kind of a testament to what studio filmmaking could look like: rock-solid, incredibly entertaining genre work with a cast and crew of people at the absolute top of their game, committed to just giving us a great time at the movies. It’s phenomenal, and we’re lucky to have it.

Knives Out is on general release this Thursday the 28th of November.

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