After spending years wrangling a mega-budget, mega-hyped sci-fi behemoth and then dealing with its divisive – and very vocal – fan reactions, you probably wouldn’t be in a rush to make another one. In fact, you’d probably opt for an original project free of the weight of expectation, which allowed you to strip things back, cut loose and have some fun. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what Rian Johnson has done with his The Last Jedi follow-up, Knives Out, serving up a film that’s about as far, far away as you could get from the Star Wars galaxy.
It’s an approach that has definitely worked in his favour. A witty whodunnit that blends classic murder mystery tropes with modern sensibilities, Knives Out is one of the smartest, most satisfying films to be found on a big screen all year – boasting an impressively game ensemble cast, a wicked sense of humour and, most importantly, a compelling conundrum that’ll keep you gripped right up until its climactic reveal.
As with most of its forebears, Knives Out begins with a death – that of successful crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who’s found in his mansion with his throat slit the morning after his 85th birthday party. At first, it seems like an open-and-shut case of suicide. That is until the arrival of celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc, who’s been hired by a mysterious benefactor to prod further.
Blanc discovers that Thrombey had spent his birthday evening “clearing house” and offering his eccentric, entitled family some unwelcome home truths. Suspecting foul play, the detective enlists the help of Thrombey’s loyal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) – a sort-of human lie detector who has a “regurgitative reaction to mistruths” – to find out who really killed the ageing patriarch.
Of course, the real joy of Knives Out is in navigating its puzzles for yourself, and to say any more would be to scupper the many twists and turns that are strewn throughout the film’s clever narrative. Writer-director Johnson has fashioned a meticulously crafted movie, both in terms of its story, which hangs together superbly, and also in terms of its production – from the brilliant set design (“The guy practically lives on a Clue board,” Lakeith Stanfield’s cop cannily observes of Thrombey’s wood-paneled manor) to Nathan Johnson’s suitably snappy score, this is an undeniably classy piece of filmmaking.
Knives Out is also a film that clearly loves the genre it belongs to, channeling everything from Agatha Christie to Jessica Fletcher (keep an eye out for a top-notch Murder, She Wrote gag). It’s frequently funny but still very much a thriller, and while the knowing, zinger-heavy script isn’t afraid to reference its inspirations, it never veers into parody. Like many of the whodunnit greats of yesteryear, there’s also a welcome strain of social satire running through the film’s veins, holding a looking glass up to the family’s destructive privilege. The Thrombeys’ political leanings, which run the gamut of (alt-)right to left – polarised by grandkids Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and Meg (Katherine Langford) – give their increasingly heightened squabbles a particularly sharp extra edge, too.
It’s all sold by a fantastic cast, who each imbue their fascinatingly flawed characters with humour and humanity, even as their civilised masks start to slip. Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon are both on top form as Thrombey’s ambitious grown-up offspring, Toni Collette hilariously finds her inner Valley Girl as yoga guru daughter-in-law Joni, and Chris Evans has lots of fun playing against type as spoiled, sweary man-child Hugh – a character whom Captain America would surely welcome with a swift clip round the ear. But the two standouts are Craig and de Armas, the film’s wannabe Holmes and unwilling Watson – the former, complete with thick Southern drawl, steals many of the film’s best laughs; the latter provides a protagonist to root for and, crucially, gives the film its heart.
Knives Out may not be an awards frontrunner. It doesn’t particularly tackle big topics, or take particularly shocking creative risks. Some may even find the characters and script a bit too broad. What it does offer, though, is a pacey and deliriously entertaining romp – a murder mystery that, in genre terms, is pretty hard to fault. With an energised Johnson orchestrating an enthusiastic group of actors and a crew that’s acing it on almost every level, it seems like cutting loose was exactly the right road to take.
Knives Out is in cinemas now.