For years, Rian Johnson has wanted to write a mystery film inspired by the works of Agatha Christie, whose novels have been developed into such films as “And Then There Were None” (1965) and “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017). Fresh off the heels of “The Last Jedi,” Johnson has realized his aspirations.
“Knives Out” is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery film with intelligent writing, artful direction and excellent performances by an all-star ensemble including Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette and many others. It was both written and directed by Johnson.
The film centers around detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who is hired to investigate the alleged suicide of wealthy mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) following a large family gathering at his country mansion for his 85th birthday. Blanc is accompanied for much of the film by Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who was very close to Harlan and was the last person to see him alive.
First and foremost, the film is fun. It is a supremely modern and intelligent murder mystery laced with black comedy, with all the twists and turns one would expect — and with one hell of a payoff in its final scenes. The writing is clever, the acting is brilliant and the tone of the movie manages to be tongue-in-cheek without becoming too campy, in a way that few films manage.
“Knives Out,” is not a one-dimensional film; there are several subtexts of social commentary throughout. Marta is an immigrant from Latin America, and Johnson pokes fun at the ignorance of some white people in the U.S. by having the Thrombeys name a different country every time they mention where she is from. This kind of sarcastic commentary fuels the film’s dark humor. That being said, it never loses sight of what it is, remaining laser-focused on the mystery at its core.
Despite its two-hour length, “Knives Out” never runs out of steam. Whereas Johnson’s fascination with subverting expectations could feel out of place at times in his “Star Wars” work, such as in the Finn and Rose casino sequence or Princess Leia’s infamous “Mary Poppins” impersonation, it is right at home in “Knives Out.” This is the kind of film that a filmmaker like Johnson should make; here he is able to spread his wings as a screenwriter and do what he does best. The passion he had for this script is readily apparent in the way he directs it, as every detail seems deliberate and thoughtfully considered.
The tone of “Knives Out” is very close, for example, to films like Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” especially in its handling of humor. Both films are funny, though they contain very few jokes — the humor comes instead from disarming situations, the framing of shots and music which frequently contrasts with the tone of the scene. This, along with the over-the-top set design and cast of characters, lends the film a signature comedic voice which is a rarity in modern cinema.
Though comedy is so often dominated by cheap jokes and gag humor, and genuine, intelligent mystery writing is viewed as old-fashioned and passe, “Knives Out” is fun, witty and a frankly refreshing change of pace.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, print edition. Email Nicholas Pabon at [email protected]