Rhys Handley on Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’ (2019)
What are movies supposed to do? Are they meant to entertain? Should they educate, or take political stances? Must they look deep into the messy core of human nature? Do they need to surprise us, or reward us? What if they did it all?
So posits director Rian Johnson, the exuberant wunderkind coming hot off the heels of the most controversial, and arguably most stimulating, Star Wars episode ever made with Knives Out, his gleefully anarchic modern-day response to the Agatha Christie whodunnit – a prescient, inventive magnifying glass trained keenly on the contradictory foibles of American society.
When beloved murder mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in suspicious circumstances, his family assembles to pick apart his legacy and fortune. Through this teeming, venomous ensemble, Johnson assembles a stacked deck of 21st-century stock types — highlights include Jamie Lee Curtis’ maniacally driven businesswoman Linda, Toni Collette devouring the scenery as Insta-influencing flower child Joni, and Jaeden Martell as the horrifying alt-right upstart Jacob. The Thrombeys manifest as avatars for the characters we see all over today’s white America, multitudinous and volatile in their difference, yet wholly of a piece.
Into the eye of the storm, Johnson sends dual protagonists stark in their absolute contrast to both each other and to the Thrombey cohort. Ana de Armas is Marta, Harlan’s nurse who tended to the ageing writer in his final days and enjoys uneasy acceptance and affection from his family. A paragon of purity (lying triggers in her violent nausea), Marta is treated with at best ambivalence and at worst poisonous contempt by the Thrombeys due to her humility and tenuous immigrant status. Her gentility and luminous humanity, played with remarkable subtlety by Armas against a cast of proliferating ludicrousness, is counterbalanced by Daniel Craig, relishing in hyperbolic license as the southern-lilting, metaphor-spinning (and gloriously-named) sleuth Benoit Blanc.
Blanc is a bottomless font of personality, with Craig indulging his idiosyncrasies and unknowability with delightful abandon. Grounded by the actor’s sturdy air of authority, the detective leads Marta by the hand into the vultures’ nest to unravel the mystery of Harlan’s death, with the two imminently likeable and diametrically opposed leads revelling in a mutual respect that builds a moral centre and narrative thrust into the chaos of the film’s wider world.
Johnson uses the familiar template of the murder mystery to create a work of reassuring familiarity and knowing subversion in Knives Out. His visual imagination, rooted in a deep affection for genre filmmaking established across his previous features, fires on all cylinders. With the geography and personality of the internal world established quickly and ingeniously, the most curious and unexpected bits and pieces can be imbued with meaning and suggestion – innocuous household items and articles of furniture become hilarious visual gags and crucial plot devices as Johnson effortless spins a number of plates overhead with seeming ease. His camera moves with assurance and purpose, the editing tricks and reveals, and Nathan Johnson’s classically-minded score is deployed to salacious and gratifying effect.
From an established template and arsenal of vintage tropes, director Johnson is able to bring forth his contemporary interpretation of the form to make wry observations and dole out cutting jabs at the state of the world. A surprising midway twist (certainly not worth spoiling here) turns the direction of the narrative entirely on its head, but Johnson sidesteps meaningless provocation and uses this sleight of hand to pick apart our biases and expectations and to dig deeper into the seeming caricatures orbiting the central mystery and elicit a deeper understanding of human connection and how far it can be tested, not least by the late introduction of family black sheep and entitled millennial monster Ransom (Chris Evans jovially upsetting the apple-cart) .
A dextrous balance of metatextuality, humour, emotion, character, politics and craft, Knives Out shows Johnson at the height of his powers — the grit and ingenuity of Brick or Looper is writ large as a more generous budget allows him to work with full-throttle imagination and creative abandon. The film is a testament to ingenuity, a powerful reminder of visual storytelling’s unique effectiveness, but its true success lies in that consistent sense of purpose – the madness never obscures the method, with the indomitably human Marta always at the heart of the propulsive twists and maniacal diversions.
More so than The Last Jedi (2017) — itself an exemplary inversion of established form — Knives Out is Johnson’s mission statement as a filmmaker, his most fully-realised calling card and a winningly watchable representation of his worldview. It delights in people’s macabre capacity for self-service and duplicity, but never at the expense of the pure optimism at the heart of the American dream – diversity, opportunity and camaraderie. To fold this into one of the most technically impressive and irrepressibly entertaining films of the year is an undeniable coup.
Knives Out screened as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas 29th November 2019.