Rian Johnson has a habit of retooling the conventions of genre cinema to deliver slick, stylish and cine-literate modern versions. This probably got him into hot water with some on THE LAST JEDI, but KNIVES OUT subtly upends the outrageously cliched ‘whodunnit’ format and combines that with excellent performances – and some political undertones – to return to this fertile approach for Johnson. Although it doesn’t quite hit the heights (nor depth) of his best, BRICK being the superlative example of Johnson’s modern remixes, KNIVES OUT is sharp and funny in equal measure.
The film opens on the death of Thrombey publishing patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer) dead in his study, apparently having slit his own throat the night before. The local police, just about ready to wrap up the case, are convinced to leave it open for two more days at the behest of renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc – circumspect about who has hired him – suspects foul play and, in attempting to navigate the lies of his variously self-interested, disingenuous and entitled descendants of Harlan, seeks the help of the late author’s longtime nurse immigrant Marta (Ana de Armas).
The film’s script, written by Johnson himself, is low on subtlety but is pitched superbly for mining amusement and twists from the viper’s nest full of characters the Thrombey family has been populated with. Outside the family, Daniel Craig plays Blanc with a Southern twang that luxuriates in every expository line and revelation. Marta’s status as an immigrant from Uruguay (with an illegally resident mother) opens up scope for commentary, providing a contrast between her experience and that of the family. The family’s varying personae take on different shades of modern America’s response: from obliviously xenophobic conservatism, through alt-right trolling, to Learjet liberalism. The interplay between them makes for comedy that is consumed easily, but not without a little bit of sharpness to chase. The manner in which Marta navigates her own way through the story offers a heavier thematic undercurrent to the Machiavellian hijinks.
The film is clearly reverent of the Agatha Christie mode of storytelling and the film and television derivatives thereof. Murder, She Wrote is seen playing on television, and the board game Cluedo is referenced both implicitly and explicitly. More than once the family is gathered in grand drawing rooms for confrontations. There is a theatricality to proceedings that gives buoyancy to the characters and stories. Although they are slightly caricatured at times, outside Marta, they work superbly in this heightened environment.
A clear success in the creation of that environment is the production design of the film. Johnson himself is slightly more restrained in terms of directorial flourishes than in previous work: there is nothing like the camerawork utilised in the action scenes of LOOPER, nor the bold blocks of colour in THE LAST JEDI. However, when the choices made with regards to lighting and camera movement are applied to the Thrombey mansion – a dense and rich location with curios lingered on in establishing shots – the combination is a mise en scene that could only be inhabited by characters such as these.
KNIVES OUT is a fun rampage through a melange of characters and scenarios. Although it could be seen as a big-budget Jonathan Creek special – and is probably Rian Johnson’s least interesting film – the quality and variety of performances combine with the richness of the production design and Rian Johnson’s style to deliver something more memorable.