It is with much the same liberated creative abandon that saw him split the spine of one or two Star Wars mainstays that Rian Johnson now cuts into Christie and the classically camp whodunnit candle her novels lit way back in the thirties. Knives Out honours such tradition but wears alien debts to Hitchcock and The Fugitive with equal pride. Originality stabs through all with an flare for boundless wit and nose for the tension it sporadically breaks. The cast are sublime and gothic manor setting pitch perfect. It’s all very knowing, very smart and very deliberately subversive. All of that and a real crowd pleaser in the very best meaning of the phrase.
The film begins largely as genre expectation demands. There’s a camp edge to Johnson’s opening shot – a leafy low angle of the Thrombay abode – well heightened by Nathan Johnson’s exquisite orchestral cascade of strings. Mere hours on from the close of his eighty-fifth birthday celebrations, the extraordinarily wealthy Harlan Thrombay, acclaimed writer of mystery fiction, is found dead in his private attic. A knife to the throat. No witnesses, ample alibis. What’s more, when Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) declares the death a clean cut case of suicide, Harlan’s heirs are all too quick to oblige. Only one smells a rat. A mid-west outsider with a penchant for sniffing out the truth and reputation as being ‘the last great gentleman sleuth’. Enter Benoit Blanc and a performance of deepest joy from Daniel Craig.
Though, by default of his returning Logan Lucky drawl, a dominant presence in Knives Out, Craig is just one of the many aces to make up Johnson’s dazzling hand. Retired Marvel hero Chris Evans has a ball as Harlan’s heinously entitled playboy grandson Ransom, while Don Johnson is his ugly maker as Trump supporting father Richard. There’s Toni Collette, on fine form as Harlan’s caricature of a daughter in law cum social media influencer Joni, and Michael Shannon too, as snivelling son Walt – the only descendent unable to meet the bill of ‘self made over achiever’. Not that the title’s issuer deploys it in compliment. Perhaps best of the bunch, however, is a scene-stealing Jamie Lee Curtis. Ever far more than cinema’s premiere scream queen, Curtis here finds delicious dichotomy in the portrayal of a woman maternal in outlook and yet self-serving to the core. As each is. That the thinly disguised contempt raging beneath this familial unit unveils itself with all too little pressure from Blanc, the cast shine brighter still.
At the story’s heart, Cuban-Spanish actor Ana de Armas plays Marta, the sole orbital of Harlan’s life beyond suspicion: his nurse and confident. A neat conceit of a character, Marta comes plagued with ‘a regurgitative reaction to mistruths’. In simpler terms, she vomits when lying. Working alongside Blanc, Marta too bears the burden of secrecy but proves all the more endearing by virtue of the guilt she shares with us. It’s a lovely, pleasingly emotive performance, bringing empathetic balance to the sharp spikes elsewhere – wryly visualised by Harlan’s Game of Thrones inspired throne of daggers – and befitting the narrative’s subversive twists. It is she who diverts Johnson’s plot from its conventional, interview based, opening unto a rabbit hole of psychological intrigue. Like the proverbial snowball, Knives Out grows and accelerates only with its progression.
Supporting all marvellously is a backdrop of gothic splendour, expertly assembled by production designer David Crank and company. Secret doors and trick windows aside, the Thrombay mansion boasts fitting masks and maquettes at every turn. Books pile and stack in dusty corners, with embossed letters ready for delivery in locked draws. Given Harlan’s notoriety as a crime writer, it is fitting that the whole thing should quite so excellently recall a three dimensional Cluedo board – as one character notes within the script itself. These self aware proto-antagonists blend sterling archness with beating black hearts, souls that tether spandrels of silliness to a more concrete reality. The combination is the making of a film that’s many levels of mystique will surely reward a dozen rewatches.