Knives Out review – a deliciously entertaining whodunnit

Rian Johnson’s homage to Agatha Christie delivers laughs, twists and thrills with aplomb

Describing his thrillingly playful attitude toward genre cinema, writer/director Rian Johnson once told me that he loved the “slightly meta conversation it opens between you and the viewer” – the way that a shared set of ground rules can be assumed and then subverted. That’s been a feature of Johnson’s career since his low-budget debut feature, Brick (2005), transposed a dark, 1940s noir narrative to the sunny environs of a modern California high school, with attention-grabbing results. In 2012’s Looper, he turned a time-travel adventure into a bleak meditation upon the consequences of solving problems through violence. More recently, his 2017 Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, outraged some hardcore fans who didn’t think the series’ ever-evolving mythology should be up for discussion.

In the deliciously entertaining Knives Out, Johnson goes back to his roots with an updated homage to the Agatha Christie whodunnits he loved as a child, and to those “cheekily self-aware” screen adaptations in which Peter Ustinov would lead an all-star cast through a labyrinthine murder mystery.

The setting is a gothic pile in modern-day New England where crime-writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has recently capped his 85th birthday celebrations by dying dramatically in his attic study. It looks like an open-and-shut suicide, but could one of Harlan’s variously leechy family members (witheringly described as a bunch of “self-made over-achievers”) have slit his throat? After all, the old man spent the evening settling old scores and “cleaning house”…

Perhaps black-sheep Ransom (Chris Evans, oozing privilege) did it – he was heard arguing with his grandfather that night. Or what about the ever-so-slightly snivelling Walt (Michael Shannon, playing against type), whose publishing fortune depended on his father’s faltering favour? Then there’s son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), a Trumpy horror with a wandering eye; and widowed lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette, channelling goopy Gwyneth Paltrow), both of whom had axes to grind.

Only Harlan’s nurse and carer Marta (Ana de Armas) appears above suspicion, blessed with a “regurgitative reaction to mistruths” that makes her vomit when lying. As for eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis in career-best form), she can’t help “thinking about Dad’s games” and “waiting for the big reveal…”

Helping to divine the nature of Harlan’s “manner of death” is gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc, a cigar-smoking, coin-flipping interloper played with an outrageous southern US accent (Ransom calls him the “CSI-KFC”) by Daniel Craig. Blanc describes himself as a “passive observer of the truth”, but a web of intrigue surrounds his own presence at this party. Who hired him? And what for?

As with the very best whodunnits, everything is set up and sneakily signalled in the opening moments of the drama, but it’s only on second viewing that those early clues become evident. There’s real pleasure to be had watching Johnson wind the coiled springs of his steel-trap plot, yet none of it would bite if we didn’t care about the characters, who remain just on the right side of caricature. Built upon a wittily verbose script that delivers more laugh-out-loud lines than most of the year’s alleged comedies, Knives Out retains a beating human heart into which daggers are regularly plunged. Witness Linda delivering a stinging reminder that all this entertaining mystery is playing out in the wake of a family tragedy, with Curtis’s imperious performance capturing that balance between the arch and the empathetic that is the film’s signature.

Watch a trailer for Knives Out.

As with Christie’s novels, there’s a strong element of social satire too. Although Marta is repeatedly told that she’s “part of the family”, she wasn’t invited to Harlan’s funeral, prompting more than one wealthy suspect to insist confidentially: “I thought you should have been there, but I was overruled.” Significant, too, that the oft-mocked Blanc remains a fish out of water in this cloistered environment, presenting a clownish facade that distracts the unsuspecting from his more serious purpose.

All this plays out in a house that is rightly likened to a giant Cluedo board (plaudits to production designer David Crank), replete with trick windows and creaky stairs, handily overheard by clock-watching light sleepers. Steve Yedlin’s cameras prowl through its rooms with stealthy zest, slithering around characters, pushing in on their faces – eyeing them with close-up suspicion from below or maintaining a facade of objective distance from above. Editor Bob Ducsay intercuts between past and present as voiceovers establish a dynamic dialogue between disparate time periods.

The cherry on the cake is Nathan Johnson’s terrifically ripe score, as sharp and spiralling as the theatrical crown of knives that hangs behind key interrogation scenes, pointing and prodding accusingly as we wait for the sword of Damocles to drop.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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