Considering the controversially mixed reception of writer/director Rian Johnson’s last cinematic outing, a little reservation would be forgiven. Whether you were in camps that adored or loathed Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, it’s impossible to deny that he took an established formula and shook it up vigorously. The term that has become synonymous with his work is ‘subverting expectations’; a process of giving the audience what ostensibly seems to be what they expect, then pulling the rug from under them.
So it is with Knives Out, a film that sets out as a loving homage to the classic Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, but soon turns into something unexpected. All of the elements you’d expect are there: a country manor, a mysterious death, a sleuth and a motley crew of motive-filled suspects, yet the film has a lot more hidden up its sleeve.
The story takes place in the Thrombey mansion, in the days after the sudden death of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) by apparent suicide. To complicate matters, super-sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired anonymously to investigate the matter, and it seems there is much to be uncovered. Was it suicide? If not, how was it done? Who is involved and what secrets and recriminations are the Thrombey family hiding? Between the star-studded line-up of the cast, could it be Jamie Lee Curtis‘s Linda, the uptight eldest daughter of the clan; her ineffectual brother, Walt (Michael Shannon); her Trump-centric husband Richard (Don Johnson); or smarmy playboy son Ransom (Chris Evans)?
The genius of Knives Out, is that it’s utterly not the film it purports itself to be. It may look like a standard whodunnit, but in truth, the main character isn’t Blanc, it’s Thrombey’s private nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) whom the film centres round, and who drives the story forwards. She’s a salt of the earth-type, a legal immigrant and the sufferer of a strange malady which makes her vomit if she tries to lie, thus making her a perfect, reliable assistant for Blanc’s investigation. To say much more would ruin the twists and turns, but it’s a experience that manages to both satisfy and confound what you expect at every turn.
It’s also a film that is wonderfully well constructed and delightfully funny throughout, with it plain to see that the cast had an absolute barrel load of laughs making the film. Each actor clearly relishes the opportunity to play hard against their normal screen images and Craig chews through a thick southern accent like nobody’s business.
If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s that at over two hours, it feels more than a little self-indulgent, particularly as the film takes an unexpected second act detour away from the mansion, which feels like it slows things down rather a lot. Added to that, although the film is in many ways intricate in its plotting, and filled with visual and narrative clues as well as many red herrings, some of the set-ups are so belaboured that it wouldn’t be that much more obvious to have a character turn to camera, wink and whisper, “This will be important later!”
That said, these are small concerns in what is clearly one of the most enjoyable films of the year. An absolute masterclass in filmmaking and hopefully the start of a series of Benoit Blanc mysteries.
At the Edinburgh Filmhouse until Thu 2nd Jan 2020