Knives Out movie review: Rian Johnson brings an Agatha Christie murder mystery party to Donald Trump’s America

Prahlad Srihari

Nov 29, 2019 15:42:50 IST


Language: English

The camera never lies in Rian Johnson's Agatha Christie-style whodunit, Knives Out. Even as the murder suspects omit, bend or tailor the truth to suit their own intentions and desires, the camera presents the objective reality through flashbacks. Usually, most murder mysteries take the Alfred Hitchcock route. They prolong the suspense by restricting the narration to the character’s point-of-view. Some take the Rashomon route by presenting subjective flashbacks of competing perspectives in its narrative.

But by taking the route less traveled instead of the well-beaten, Johnson rejuvenates the dying whodunit sub-genre with some invigorating twists. He does it with the same postmodern pizzazz he displayed in his debut feature Brick, where he transposed the plot, tone, and vernacular of a Dashiell Hammett novel to a modern-day high school. This time around, he transposes Christie's world to Donald Trump's America but has a lot more fun with it.

 Knives Out movie review: Rian Johnson brings an Agatha Christie murder mystery party to Donald Trump’s America

Characters of Knives Out

Though Johnson relishes subverting genre expectations, it does not stop him from paying homage to some time-honoured traditions. The sudden death of a wealthy family's patriarch (Christopher Plummer) brings together an eccentric variety of money-hungry leeches — from sons and daughters to grandkids and in-laws — to a sprawling Gothic mansion. Everyone is a suspect, and everyone has secrets to hide. So a famous detective (Daniel Craig) is brought in to investigate. Knives Out is also filled with winking meta-nods: the murdered patriarch Harlan Thrombey is a whodunit writer very much of Agatha Christie's ilk; Craig's Benoit Blanc evokes Christie's Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot in name and mannerisms; and the mansion is “practically...a Clue board" as a character observes.

Agatha Christie-style whodunits are often imitated, but rarely approximated this effectively. The codified whodunit template is folded and sculpted into an intricate new origami. As Blanc slowly unfolds the mystery, misdirections divert us onto false tracks as we change our minds more than once on who is guilty. To reveal any more would be a sin. But rest assured, the twists and turns will keep you guessing and engaged right till the end.

Daniel Craig in Knives Out

Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig in a still from Knives Out

Craig flexes the character-comedy chops he displayed in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky, pulling off another comedy heist — this time as Benoit Blanc. He delivers plenty of laughs even without the Kentucky-fried accent and silly doughnut analogies. Once his 007 contract ends, he should play more Joe Bangs than James Bonds.

Johnson assembles an exceptional cast to play the privileged troublemakers of Thrombey family: Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Harlan's matter-of-fact daughter who is a real-estate tycoon; Michael Shannon as Walt, the hot-tempered son who runs the family publishing business; and Don Johnson as Linda's philandering husband Richard. Chris Evans and Toni Colette offer delightful against-type turns as Ransom, the arrogant trust-fund playboy, and Joni, a Gwyneth Paltrow-type influencer who runs a Goop-like lifestyle brand. Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan make a case for a Lethal Weapon reboot as the two local detectives working the case with Craig's Benoit. Between the Thrombeys and the detectives, Knives Out offers plenty of sharp-tongued banter, shade throwing and biting dialogue.

But in a story filled with immoral characters, Harlan's live-in nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) acts as the sole moral compass. She seems to be the only one sincere in her grief over the death of her employer. In fact, she is so sincere she is physically incapable of lying without throwing up (an affliction which is used as a comic plot device) — thus, she becomes Blanc's confidante during the investigation. Watching these upper-class charades play out through De Armas' eyes, it is hard not to see Knives Out as a satire of white privilege in America, where wealth and opportunities pass from one generation to the next at the expense of hardworking immigrants. Though the Thrombeys all feign closeness to Marta, none of them can remember her place of origin (Is it Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil or Ecuador?), which becomes a running gag.

Ana de Armas in a still from Knives Out

Ana de Armas in a still from Knives Out

The ideological makeup of the family ranges from conservative freeloaders who think immigrants are stealing their jobs, to liberal freeloaders who "would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could." Their ignorance and hypocrisies are symptomatic of the prevalent xenophobic attitude towards immigrants in the US.

Thus, Knives Out is not only a throwback to classic murder mysteries, but a well-calibrated genre exercise truly meant for these troubling times. Though the text feels retro, the subtext feels unapologetically contemporary.

This is a world where people smoke Juuls, drop Hamilton references, and get their fix of self-help advice from pseudo-scientific voices. It is also a world where teenage SJWs and pre-pubescent alt-right trolls — like the grand-kids Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) respectively — war over Trump and, possibly, Johnson's own Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But the comedic touches of the script ensure the film stays above the fray of all the didactism.

Johnson spreads the clues, and stages the revelations across the rooms and corridors of the Thrombey mansion. The elaborate production design, with all sorts of outrageous heirlooms, adds an old money texture to the proceedings.

Knives Out still

A still from Knives Out

Rounding out the virtues is its music. Fitting to the title of the film, there's a piercing quality to Nathan Johnson's orchestral string instrumentation, while the soundtrack features infectious classic rock and pop favourites, from the likes of Roxy Music, Gordon Lightfoot, and The Rolling Stones (but no Radiohead).

Knives Out is the kind of slick, star-studded murder mystery Hollywood has sadly forgotten how to make in its desire to remake and reboot existing properties. Not only is Johnson’s new film fiendishly clever and expertly staged, it successfully balances the comedy between screwball and wry commentary. It is also an effective one-finger salute to all The Last Jedi haters.

Rating: ****1/2

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Updated Date: Nov 30, 2019 23:59:49 IST