Writer/director Rian Johnson’s penchant for a thrillingly playful approach to genre storytelling is a trademark that has defined his career. Johnson’s fascination lies in the “slightly meta-conversation it opens between you and the viewer,” a dynamic where shared ground rules can be assumed and then gleefully subverted. This characteristic flair has been evident since his debut feature, ‘Brick’ (2005), cleverly transposed a dark, 1940s noir narrative into the sunlit setting of a modern California high school.
Now, in the deliciously entertaining ‘Knives Out,’ Johnson revisits his roots with an updated homage to Agatha Christie’s whodunnits. The film captures the essence of those “cheekily self-aware” screen adaptations, where an all-star cast navigates a labyrinthine murder mystery, reminiscent of Peter Ustinov-led ensembles.
Set in a gothic mansion in modern-day New England, the film revolves around the death of crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) during his 85th birthday celebration. Though it appears to be an open-and-shut suicide, the possibility of foul play looms over his leech family of “self-made over-achievers.” The suspects include black-sheep Ransom (Chris Evans), the privileged grandson and the slightly snivelling Walt (Michael Shannon), whose publishing fortune hinges on paternal favour.
The narrative weaves a tale of suspicion and familial intrigue, with Daniel Craig portraying the gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc. Blanc, a cigar-smoking, coin-flipping investigator with an outrageous southern US accent, adds a layer of complexity to the unfolding drama. As the characters grapple with the mystery, Johnson skillfully lays out the plot’s intricacies, leaving breadcrumbs that only become evident on a second viewing.
Yet, what sets ‘Knives Out’ apart is its beating human heart, embodied by characters who remain just on the right side of caricature. The film’s witty and verbose script delivers more laugh-out-loud lines than most comedies, creating a delightful balance between mystery and character depth. Jamie Lee Curtis’s imperious performance as Linda serves as a poignant reminder that the entertaining mystery unfolds against the backdrop of a family tragedy.
In the tradition of Agatha Christie, social satire permeates the narrative, highlighting the disparities within the Thrombey family. The character Marta, repeatedly told she’s “part of the family,” is starkly excluded from Harlan’s funeral, revealing the family’s true sentiments. Additionally, Blanc, often mocked, remains a fish out of water, presenting a clownish facade that conceals his more serious purpose.
The film’s visual elements, from the Cluedo board-like mansion to Steve Yedlin’s stealthy camera work, enhance the suspense. Nathan Johnson’s ripe score, sharp and spiralling, complements the theatrical crown of knives, heightening the tension during key interrogation scenes.
‘Knives Out’ is more than a murder mystery, it adds deception, humour and social commentary. Johnson’s ability to seamlessly blend genres while crafting a compelling narrative makes this film a standout in the realm of modern cinema.