This hasn’t been a strong year for films.
Somebody asked me the other day what my favourite flick of the year was and I really had to think; not because there were so many to choose from but because nothing really stood out to me. Having seen Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” this week however, I think I may have found a strong contender. This is a witty, sharp, funny and fiercely entertaining homage to the “whodunit” mysteries of Agatha Christie and incorporates this style into the modern day with surprising finesse. This is definitely the most fun I’ve had in the cinema all year, and judging by the gasps and exclamations from the rest of the audience in my screening, I wasn’t the only one sitting on the edge of my seat.
While the mystery genre is a popular one, there have been some absolute shockers in the past and “Knives Out” could have easily gone in the same direction. Assembling a stellar cast and whacking them in an austere murder house is nothing without a tight script, a strong build-up of suspense and a well-executed twist that takes the audience by surprise while also making us kick ourselves for not seeing it in the first place. The premise of Knives Out is as conventional as it comes, and I loved it for it; wealthy crime author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found dead by his housekeeper the day after his 85th birthday party. Everybody in the family has a motive for murdering him, from his ambitious and stony eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) to his spoiled playboy grandson Hugh (Chris Evans) and the only one to solve the mystery is of course renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a delicious Savannah drawl), with the help of Harlan’s Hispanic nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).
It’s a ripper cast, and there’s always a danger in big ensembles that usually striking actors and actresses will become lost and somewhat redundant. Johnson has recognised this, and has given each prominent member of the cast at least one meaty scene in which they are the central focus and in which they can really stretch their acting chops (I was reminded of Ingrid Bergman winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Murder on the Orient Express” for what was essentially a five minute monologue). The performances were strong across the board, especially Toni Collete who plays Harlan’s daughter in law Joni, a sycophantic Instagram influencer and lifestyle guru who drips with false sincerity with every self righteous syllable. None of the performances are necessarily extraordinary, but I wasn’t expecting them to be and they certainly don’t need to be for the film itself to work as well as it does.
In order to contextualise the family and make it relevant to 21st century America, each member of the family represents the polarities in the current political and social climate. Some are blatantly Marxist “liberal snowflakes” while others are alt right neo-Nazis. What was clever though is that they’re all portrayed as assholes, so it’s not trying to justify either perspective. I was so glad to see a film not take sides in this sort of thing; they’re all suspects, all despicable and all equally capable of murder regardless of their political leanings.
The plotting and the inevitable twist is done well, perhaps no more so than any of the better Agatha Christie stories, but well enough. Some of the reveals I thought were a little bit too convenient and contrived, but for the most part I think hold up. For me the trick with these murder mysteries is whether, as an audience member, you are convinced that you could have put it together yourself once all the clues are revealed. There were definitely times here when I rolled my eyes at how silly some of it all was, but this is a very minor criticism. And maybe a degree of absurdity is all part of the fun.
That’s what I’ve taken away from this film; this was good old fashioned fun, flashy and extravagantly entertaining in a way which I hope will inspire more filmmakers to have a play with this style of film. Escapism in film is a wonderful thing if done well, and Knives Out has it in spades.
By Jock Lehman