From its opening shots, you might be tricked into thinking that Knives Out is going to be your standard whodunnit. Isolated mansion in unspecified location? Check. A score replete with screeching strings? Check. Various creepy trinkets, dolls and weird paintings on the walls? Check. And yet, director Rian Johnson perfectly satirizes this Agatha Christie-esque setting with contemporary humour and irresistible slapstick, creating a truly hilarious crime caper that feels simultaneously like a loving pastiche and incisive parody of erstwhile detective narratives.
Borrowing heavily from comedically-inclined murder mysteries like Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, the story begins with the death of successful crime author Harlan Thrombey after a mysterious and gruesome suicide aged 85. Daniel Craig, speaking vaguely like he’d wandered straight off a Georgia plantation from 1836, parodies Poirot as Inspector Benoit Blanc, who is tasked with figuring out whether or not foul play was involved in the patriarch’s death. Who could it have been? Was it grandson Jacob (an alt-right teen who likes bashing Syrians on Twitter and masturbating)? Daughter-in-law Joni (a super woke cool-mom played in a hilarious Cally-from-the-Valley drawl by Toni Collette)? Grandaughter Meg (who is writing her thesis on “crypto-marxist feminism”)? Or even Great Nana Thrombey (whose age is a mystery)? This rag-tag bunch of resolutely modern stock characters must navigate the death, all the while throwing off suspicion as to their true worry: how much money they’ll get from the will.
Despite the presence of huge stars, from scream-queen icon Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and even Captain America himself Chris Evans, the real star of the show here is Ana de Armas as the vomit-prone nurse Marta Cabrera. Navigating the snake-pit of grabby relatives with all the wide-eyed innocence of a slow loris, she shines in this role that allows her to show both genuine emotion and flashes of comedic brilliance. Thrombey’s arrogant son-in-law Richard clumsily quotes Hamilton when he says “Immigrants, they get the job done” (before promptly saying that Marta is from Ecuador… and then Paraguay… and then Brazil), but in Knives Out this really is the case – modern touches of woke humour and zeigeisty references, from New Yorker trending articles to Netflix, are used to promote the good-hearted Marta out of the realm of self-absorbed American vipers. With the Thrombey offspring obsessed with money, their phones and their own egos, Knives Out pans out like Inspector Morse for Millennials, where you root for the underdog to rise to the top.
Rian Johnson’s camera is like Benoit Blanc’s interrogative sidekick, swooping in and out of characters’ faces like Poirot with a magnifying lens. The feel of the filmmaking itself is fast-paced and assured, with Steve Yedlin’s cinematography being yet another tool used to mock the narrative with shadowy faces, darkened basements and slow-mo. Whereas in Michôd’s The King it felt like only Robin Pattinson was in on the joke, in Knives Out everyone is fully committed to the ridiculousness. Some of it is just truly silly. No one explains why there’s a giant iron sphere clad with hundreds of knives chilling in the drawing room. Marta supposedly subconsciously knows the difference between two different drugs, despite them being labelled differently, because of some innocuous reasoning about opacity. There aren’t Hitchcockian levels of suspense, but the film is at its side-splitting best in its funny moments, of which there are plenty (a special shout out must go to Daniel Craig, musing that “this case has a hole in it… like a donut.”).
Despite a bit of lagging in the middle portion and one-too-many added elements that felt a little like a first draft, if any of us thought that this genre had bitten the dust, Johnson is here to prove us wrong.
Knives Out will be released in the UK on 29 November 2019.
Words by Steph Green