British audiences know the whodunit genre well. The Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, wrote 66 murder mystery novels over the course of her prolific literary career and her two most famous detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, are undoubtedly amongst the first names in the hat at family games of charades across the country every holiday season.
This Christmas break, The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson brings us the warmth of the living-room fireplace and the iciness of familial contempt in his modern American murder mystery, Knives Out.
The Thrombey family history is stained with grudges and secrets. Christopher Plummer is Harlan Thrombey, a white-bearded, rose-cheeked family patriarch with a twinkle in his eye. His best-selling crime novels have amassed a great fortune and afforded he and his family the gorgeous Gothic-style mansion where most of the film takes place. The morning after his 85th birthday party, he is found dead in his bedroom, lying on his divan with his throat slit.
Local police conclude it was a suicide. So, it falls to mysterious piano-playing detective Benoit Blanc (whose ancestry is an amusing mix of Belgian, American and British) to untangle the web of family grudges which led to Harlan’s death. When lawyer Frank Oz delivers the shocking news that Harlan’s inheritance is up for grabs, almost every one of his heirs proves themself to be as false, self-serving and greedy as those upper-class Americans who claim self-made success, hoard their millions, and vote for Trump. This is no coincidence. Johnson’s critique of social class in modern-day America is as razor sharp as the knife that killed Harlan.
Rian Johnson’s efforts to make the film fresh and modern are welcome and the results well-crafted. Harlan’s crime novels, stored on his bookshelf, have colourful cheap mass-market sleeves; internet-speak is integrated into the dialogue in a not unnatural way; and characters (particularly the younger ones) clearly belong to a generation whose daily life is consumed by social media and screens. Consequently, Knives Out feels like a movie-in-time– the kind of film that reflects the world of today so accurately that it may not age well.
That said, the timelessness of Knives Out comes from the impressive performances of its stellar ensemble cast. The casting is superb. We all know that Daniel Craig is great as a stone-faced super-spy (James Bond) and an efficient, tidy drug dealer (Layer Cake). But who knew that he was so gifted at dead-pan comedy? Alongside him Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan make a memorable duo as happy-go-lucky cops; Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson play a husband and wife hilariously gritting their teeth through a marriage in tatters; Chris Evans curses his way to some laughs and emits a flirtatious air of masculine confidence that is both lovable and detestable; and Ana de Armas delivers an immensely likeable, and at times brilliantly vengeful, performance as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse.
Similar to the way Tarantino makes you laugh while wincing through the excitement of one of his movies, playful acting makes Knives Out not just a thrilling film but a funny one. The comedic moments of this film should be fawned over just as obsessively as its impressively water-tight plot is appreciated . You may leave the cinema prizing the mystery apart and puzzling over its intricacies, but you’ll be chuckling at Daniel Craig’s donut speech for days or even weeks on end.
The marriage of cool pop music (The Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia,” for example) and Nathan Johnson’s ominous score with the artful cinematography of Steve Yedlin ensures that Knives Out appeals on all fronts. Not least of these fronts, the costume design, led by Jenny Eagan, has been celebrated by the public and critics alike. Online sales of ‘Chris Evans’ sweater’ have gone through the roof and one independent Los Angeles cinema even hosted a sweaters-only Knives Out screening. The illustrated miniatures of each character in the final credits, which pay homage to the graphic design of Agatha Christie novels, are also a nice touch.
With Knives Out, Rian Johnson seems to be making a statement about what his cinema is all about. His films subtly argue that there is something to be said for pure entertainment and the impermanent candy-cane sweetness of a commercial film. Knives Out is exactly that: a clever, funny picture with mass market appeal. It’s Hollywood done right– the cinematic equivalent of a Campbell’s Soup Can.
* In UK cinemas since 29th November, Knives Out is currently clocking an impressive 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.