When you have delivered a billion-dollar grossing Star Wars film, that somehow ignited controversy from a part of its fanbase who took against it, what do you do next? Well, if you are Rian Johnson, you deliver one of the best murder mysteries in forever and then use it to hold a mirror up to the world.
There is so much to unpack from Knives Out and yet there is a lightness of touch here that makes it simultaneously funny and thrilling all at the same time. Packed to the rafters with some genuinely big stars, yet even the film’s handling of the persona of the actors playing them is quietly subversive.
The film introduces us to a plethora of characters played by some of the biggest names you can put into a film, investigated by a character played by none other than Daniel Craig, and yet it’s a film that belongs to someone who in any other version of this story would be a side character.
Ana De Armas’s character Martha is put front and centre in a number of creative choices that show a willingness on Johnson’s part to take the type of movie that were major successes a long time ago, and which usually fill up the BBC schedules on a Bank Holiday or a rainy Sunday afternoon, and play with them in a ferociously brilliant way.
Marketed heavily as a murder mystery, the film even throws the rug out from under the audience who are coming in expecting something similar to Kenneth Branagh’s recent Murder on the Orient Express and basically shows us the circumstances related to the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) in the space of the first third of the run time.
What seemed as if it was going to be a whodunnit becomes a ‘we know who did it (kind of), but how are they going to get away with it’, although Johnson is savvy enough to know that we love twists in these things so there is more than a whiff of foul play afoot to actually swing the pendulum back into the realm of murder mystery in the final act.
Johnson has made a career of subverting genre expectations or playing with the expectations of the audience, something that got its biggest audience, and reaction, to date when he took the reins of the eighth instalment of Star Wars. Even as far back as Brick, and subsequently with The Brothers Bloom and Looper, he has shown a willingness to take chances or do things with his characters and stories that you don’t expect and it makes his films invigorating experiences to watch.
Even the episodes of Breaking Bad he directed were devastatingly subversive, from the bottle episode antics of ‘Fly’ to the series smashing game changer that was ‘Ozymandias’.
What is even more remarkable about Knives Out is how it even reaches out its narrative to become a film that is effectively about the state of America today; this is essentially a film about a family where the majority is made up of the type of rich, affluent Americans who didn’t have a problem voting for Donald Trump, or pretend to be deeply liberal and caring and then destroys them over the course of two hours through their own sense of greed and entitlement and be damned anyone that gets in the way of their inheritance.
The way he twists the knife into their lives and leaves them to skewer on it, particularly in that glorious final scene, must surely rank as the most satisfying moment of any film in recent memory.
That all of this comes from a film in which Daniel Craig, James Bond himself, runs around with an exaggerated southern accent expounding on the virtues of donuts and donut holes says a lot. Everyone in the cast is brilliant, from Chris Evans making for a tremendously believable douchebag to Jamie Lee Curtis owning the screen in the way only she knows how, but the film is anchored and driven by what should very well be a career making one by Ana De Armas.
The film eventually builds to a wonderful partnership between Marta and Blanc, with the latter seeing her kindness and the former becoming increasingly sympathetic as events conspire around her, coupled with the funniest vomiting gag in movie history.
As for Craig, it goes without saying that the idea of following Benoit Blanc into different cases over different movies is an enticing prospect and shows that an actor most famous for taking James Bond into a more grounded and grittier direction (with its moments of humour) can take something more inherently comedic and do wonders with it while still being a three dimensional and wonderful character.
The eventual reveal of who the killer is turns out to be somewhat obvious, but the film gets its claws into you that one is more interested by the ‘how’ than the who, and when Blanc rounds up the suspects for that final explanation (there are some genre tropes that you just need for a film like this), it makes up for one of the most satisfying movie experiences in recent years.
No CGI, no explosions, no skyscrapers falling to the ground, it’s a film made up of fantastic dialogue, great performances, and enthralling storytelling with all the twists and turns that you want and expect from it.
Knives Out is available on DVD and Blu Ray, and to stream on Amazon Video and iTunes in the US and UK, and Sky Store in the UK.