Directed by Rian Johnson
I wasn’t big on whodunits ’til I was in my late twenties when an armchair detective pal lured me round to watch the ITV version of Death in the Nile. I was hooked. The pompous aristocrats, the often absurd plot contrivances, the gleeful tone that persevered no matter how many bodies surfaced. But most of all it was about the games: those played between the characters and those in which the makers engaged the viewers. Each posed a challenge: an intriguing puzzle to solve, preferably before the detective. It was rare I would, and the times I did it tended to be a sign of poor construction rather than proof of any Holmesian brilliance on my part. Still, I’ve been keen to play Watson from afar ever since, via books, movies and shows. Hence when I found out The Last Jedi writer/ director, Rian Johnson had done a manor-house mystery, I hopped to Vue to pronounce the game afoot!
Fresh from working on his underrated sci-fi sequel, Johnson has access to some real star power. Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Captain America himself, Chris Evans, are among the suspects questioned in the quintessential country house. Christopher Plummer takes a turn as the unfortunate victim: bestselling author Harlan Thrombey. He is no stranger to a detective novel, having written his fair share. Each of his family members has reasons for wanting him dead, whether for financial gain or self-preservation. So when Harlan gets found with his throat slit, you don’t have to be a great detective to conclude there’s been a murder. Luckily there’s one on-site to solve it after being hired anonymously. Enter one of the last gentlemen sleuths, southern drawler Benoit Blanc (Craig) to crack the case. A case which will start as an accomplished, if unremarkable, mystery, before twisting itself into the best thriller of the year.
I’d never really considered the current James Bond to be especially funny. Sure, he can deliver a dry, witty line. But generally, he plays his signature part with a quiet intensity that makes the more light-hearted turns of Roger Moore a distant memory. This darker, more self-serious tone may have been necessary for rebooting the franchise, but it means most of us have never seen his comic chops. If Knives Out is anything to go by, this is a loss. Craig excels as the self-mythologising private eye, identifying a fine line between integrity and parody. To an extent, the finest investigators have been slightly psychopathic, with a tendency to share the viewers’ glee that a crime has been committed. Blanc is no exception, striding between clues with a spring in his step. His excitement, when making his suspects squirm, is endearing. And I can only imagine Craig has had more fun doing this than the last few films in the franchise he’s increasingly quick to moan about.
The rest of the cast is similarly enjoyable, playing up the worst parts of their various characters with relish. I was particularly impressed with Toni Collette, who portrays daughter Joni as a Gwyneth Paltrow style pseudo-guru, and hippy hypocrite. Jamie Lee Curtis is strong as ever as the successful businesswoman Linda, daughter of the deceased, married to Trumpian husband Richard (Johnson) and mother of roguish son Ransom. Chris Evans is stellar in this part, the most charming spoiled brat you’ll see on screen this year. Elsewhere, you may recognise Jaeden Martell as young Bill from It. Although he doesn’t feature much, he’s hilarious as an alt-right troll and bathroom wanker, Jacob (presumably a swipe back at the people who have given Johnson a hard time as of late). Then finally there’s Ana de Armas – the member of the core cast with whom I was least familiar. As Harlan’s nurse Marta, she is the heart of the film and, in an unconventional move, our starting point for the story instead of Blanc. Her rare tendency to vomit when she lies also makes her arguably the person we can trust the most.
Which brings me to the mystery. Although the cast is important, the success of this kind of story inevitably comes down to its solution. While Knives Out doesn’t do anything completely new with the subgenre, since it consciously embraces its traditions, it’s nonetheless a fiendishly crafted conundrum in which everything means something. And though I did figure out some of the earlier revelations, when everything came together I was in awe of the trickery. What’s really impressive is, like the best Golden Age authors, Johnson doesn’t cheat once. The clues are all there, and I suspect a super careful viewer could reasonably figure it out (or, more likely, kick themselves for not doing it). During my impending second viewing, I can see myself noticing all sorts of sly hints. He really impressed me as both a writer and a director, pacing the story wonderfully no matter how many mystery balls he juggles. Despite the laughs, he also gives the classic template more dramatic weight than it would usually carry. The character motivations all check out, and he even does some interesting things with audience identification – although I’ll say no more on this at risk of spoiling the fun.
None of this should surprise anyone who has seen more than one of his other movies: these qualities are why he got offered Star Wars in the first place. Speaking of the bantha in the room, I lean towards it being a misunderstood masterpiece so don’t think he needs to apologise. As such, I hope Knives Out partially rehabilitates him in the eyes of the cinema-going public. Come the end of the year, I can see a lot of former nay-sayers talking about their favourite film of 2019, and being surprised to say it was Rian Johnson whodunit.