Rian Johnson is a man who loves breaking rules. He broke just about every rule in the book when he was given the reins to Star Wars, and some of the most unpleasant people on the internet are still giving him grief for it two years later. The thing is, in order to break the rules, it helps to know them, and Knives Out proves that Johnson knows the rules inside out and back to front.
At first glance, Knives Out seems like a classic murder mystery that could’ve been written by Agatha Christie herself. The morning after his 85th birthday party, an ageing crime writer with the fabulous name of Harlan Thrombey is found in the attic of his sprawling mansion with his throat cut. It looks like a suicide, but it might be murder. His extended family were present, and it seems each of them has a reason to want the old man dead. There’s even an eccentric gentleman sleuth, hired by persons unknown to figure out what happened.
It’s an intricate puzzle, and the film takes its time laying out all the pieces. Then Johnson flips over the board, and you realise he was playing a different game the entire time. He even shows us, in no uncertain terms, exactly how the old man died and who is responsible. Or does he? You know how these stories go, and Johnson knows that you know, and uses that to his advantage – you’re so busy looking for the ace up his sleeve, you don’t notice him pluck a coin from behind your ear. There are red herrings galore, and throwaway lines that prove vitally important, and it’s impossible to figure out which are which. Johnson refuses to pander to expectations at every turn, right up to the moment that the whole cast is brought together in the accusing parlour to find out who done it.
And what a cast it is. Johnson has assembled a murderer’s row of talent, and everybody gets a chance to shine. Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson trade barbs as a spiky businesswoman and her cheating husband respectively; Toni Collette gets some of the best lines as a vapid socialite (‘I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you’ is a particular highlight); and Chris Evans gleefully swans about in full-on asshole mode wearing Twitter’s new favourite jumper. Even Jaeden Martell, who gets relatively little screen time, makes a lasting impression as an odious internet troll.
And then there’s Benoit Blanc.
Two years ago, in Steven Soderbergh’s heist movie Logan Lucky, Daniel Craig stole the show as a bleached-blonde demolitions expert named Joe Bang. His turn here makes that look like a warm-up act. From the moment he first appears, quietly observing a police interview and tapping a piano key to keep the cops on task, everything about his character is instantly iconic. He talks like Foghorn Leghorn, he dresses like a university professor, and his method of solving cases is the same as Dirk Gently’s: keep collecting evidence until the solution basically falls into his lap. After years of being trapped in the role of 007 Craig is clearly having a ball as Blanc, and I want to see a dozen more films where he solves murders and makes weird analogies about doughnuts.
But while Craig is the film’s avatar of justice, its conscience is undoubtedly Ana de Armas, who puts in a star-making turn as Thrombey’s immigrant caretaker Marta. Not only is she a paragon of virtue – a woman so intrinsically good that telling lies makes her violently, physically sick – but it’s through her that Knives Out makes some razor-sharp social commentary.
In recent years the detective story has started to feel a relic of the past: the best modern examples of the genre, from Inherent Vice to The Nice Guys to Murder on the Orient Express, are all period pieces. Even Rian Johnson’s own debut, Brick, while set in contemporary California, had characters who spoke like they were in a Dashiell Hammett novel. By contrast, Knives Out plants itself firmly in our modern day. This year has seen a slew of films with a ‘burn the rich’ message, from hide-and-seek horror movies to Oscar-bait character dramas about deranged clowns, but none feel quite as pointed as this.
The white, upper-class Thrombeys are all massive fans of Hamilton, but none of them seem to know exactly where Marta’s family emigrated from. Don Johnson might not be wearing a red baseball cap, but when his character defends a politician by saying he’s “creating jobs”, we all know who he’s talking about. Everyone treats Marta as not just the help but a member of the family – that is, right up to the point when it looks as if she threatens their inheritance, and threats of deportation come to their lips with startling ease. Still, everyone eventually gets what’s coming to them. The final shot sees Marta looking down on her former employer’s family from the balcony of Harlan’s mansion – which now belongs to her – holding a coffee mug that reads “My house, my rules.”
It’s a wonderful middle finger to the Thrombeys and everything they represent, but it also feels like a statement of intent from Rian Johnson to us, the audience. Knives Out is a film steeped in traditional whodunit tropes, but by knowing exactly how and when to break the rules it also shakes the dust off the genre and breathes new life into it, and that’s what makes it one of the smartest, most deliriously entertaining films of 2019.