After getting lambasted by angry man-babies for his attempt to do something very slightly different with Star Wars, you could forgive writer-director Rian Johnson if he decided he wanted to retreat to the hills never to make a movie again. However, the best thing you can do, with most setbacks in life, is to get back out there.
And boy, he did. For Knives Out is a triumph and, for me, one of the best films of the year.
It perhaps helps that we’ve had a lot of blockbuster and superhero films of late. So with Johnson’s film being in the mould of a classic whodunnit, it’s probably a welcome change of pace for a lot of movie fans. A palate cleanser at the end of the year? Maybe. Whatever it is, it’s a great story. Rumour is he came up with the idea for the film shortly after finishing Brick in 2005, so it’s been a long time coming. I am glad he’s finally been able to bring it to the screen.
From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point.
The film opens with the death of the patriarch of a large family, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and the family being called in for questioning. So we get to meet them one by one: the daughters – eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and free spirit Joni (Toni Collette), underachieving son Walt (Michael Shannon) and shady son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson).
From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point. Indeed, it’s one of those films where you can tell the cast all upped their game, knowing they were making something special.
Lurking in the background of these opening exchanges is master detective, Benoit Blanc (played with a sublime southern accent and real gusto by Daniel Craig. Probably relishing the chance to lean into the sort of role he rarely gets to play). Slowly, he gets more involved, taking over the questioning from the police and unsettling the family.
In some ways he acts as antagonist, of sorts, trying to get to the truth of Harlan’s murder whilst keeping Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) close – for the story is primarily told from her point of view. She seems distraught at Harlan’s death but is clearly hiding something. But then so is everyone. In classic whodunit style most of the family have a credible reason as to why they might want to kill the old man.
The trick, these days, is to try and keep the audience guessing, but not to confuse them trying to be too clever with the plot. I’d say that Johnson does this in a remarkably accomplished way, getting the balance spot on. It all goes up a notch when bad apple son Hugh (Chris Evans) turns up. After Captain America you can see the joy Evans has in playing a bit of a bastard.
It’s also worth mentioning Ana de Armas. As our protagonist she is really holding the whole thing together. I’d only really seen her in a small part in Blade Runner: 2049, so it was nice to see what she could do in a more complex role – and she does well.
Johnson has apparently said in an interview that he’d be open to doing a sequel, following Benoit Blanc around as he solves other murders. I am torn on this as sometimes it’s better to let things lie and not end up watering down the impact you had striking gold first time round.
Whatever he ends up doing, Knives Out remains one of Johnson’s best pieces of work, adding another string to his bow as a filmmaker (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and makes me excited to see what he does next.