If you had to name a filmmaker who has definitely made their mark on cinema over the pass decade, Rian Johnson would definitely be one of the first ones that every cinephile would think of. When you think about it, it’s hard not to understand why. Ever since he broke out with his debut film BRICK back in 2006, Johnson has slowly become one of the most accomplished and acclaimed filmmakers working today. What makes him stand out as a director is his ability to take a specific sub-genres of film, and approach in a way that makes it feel totally unique when compared other similar films that we’re seen before. Johnson’s first film BRICK was a ’50s style neo-noir set in a modern day high school, THE BROTHERS BLOOM was a quirky comedic con-artist caper, LOOPER was a sci-fi/action film with a unique hook on the time-travel concept and his unique approach to STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI delivered both one of the best if most divisive entry in the STAR WARS series yet. Now after his trip in a galaxy far, far away into big budget filmmaking, Johnson returns to his smaller roots to make his latest film comedy/thriller KNIVES OUT, which is his own take on the Agatha Christie style whodunit murder mysteries.
The film tells the story of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famous rich novelist who earned his fortune by writing best selling mystery novels. One night Harlan brings his extended if rather dysfunctional family and friends together – daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) along with her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their son Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans), son Walter “Walt” Thrombey (Michael Shannon) along with his wife Linda (Riki Lindhome) and son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), daugther-in-daughter Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) along with her daughter Megan (Katherine Langford), still very much alive mother Wanetta “Great Nana” Thrombey (K Callan), housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and his nurse/caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) – for his 85th birthday at his isolated mansion in the countryside. However things take a tragic turn when the next day after the party, Harlan is found dead with his throat cut. When Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and few other officers arrive on the scene, the evidence seems to suggest that Harlan may have committed suicide. However when a private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) joins the investigation, he suspects foul play and believes that Harlan was murdered by someone who was there on the night of his birthday party.
I don’t know about anyone else, I really enjoy a good whodunit murder mystery. So when I heard that after making STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (which for the record, is the best STAR WARS film since RETURN OF THE JEDI, fanboys!) that writer/director Rian Johnson was going to tackle one in the same vein as classics in the sub-genre like MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, GOSFORD FORD, CLUE etc., I knew it was going to be right up my alley. If you have seen all of Johnson’s previous work, you would know for a fact that he is a filmmaker who loves to subvert our expectations to what we as audience expect from any sub-genre of film that he takes on. So was Johnson able to deliver with KNIVES OUT? You’re damn right he did! This was an absolutely terrific film that I found to be equal parts hilarious, subversive, entertaining and surprising. From beginning to end I had a great time with this film and I loved the unique approach that it took with its story. While KNIVES OUT may have one of the best all-star casts assembled for a film in recent memory, the true star of this whole show is without a doubt Rian Johnson himself.
Having seen quite a number of whodunit murder mystery films over the years, I was very curious to see how Rian Johnson would do in that sub-genre with KNIVES OUT since those films have very specific tropes and conventions in their stories that everyone is aware of. To my surprise whatsoever, he was able to spin them rather brilliantly with his very clever screenplay. I could explain why that is but I would have to go into spoiler territory to say but believe me, this is one of those type of films that’s best to go into as blind as possible. What I can say is that both Johnson’s script and direction were simply superb. The plot is quite original in how it tackles the mystery and the dialogue is delightfully snappy in how its written. Plus the script is surprisingly quite thematically rich as well since Johnson uses it to comment on politically/socially charged subjects that are happening in our world today. While I do admit that these aspects do come across as very subtle at times, Johnson approaches them in a rather satirically funny way so that it never feels too smug or obnoxious. When it comes to his direction of KNIVES OUT, Johnson, along with the help of his long time cinematographer Steve Yedlin, brings a meticulous visual style to the film that makes even the simplest scenes of where characters are talking to each other in a room look both stunning and unique. Also on a technical front the production design is wonderful (the mansion in particular where most of the film takes place is just superbly designed), the score by Nathan Johnson is extremely original and editing wise the film is very well paced.
As great as this film is on both a technical and screenwriting level, what also makes KNIVES OUT such a fun time is it’s brilliant all-star ensemble cast. Everyone here gives an absolutely pitch perfect performance and they have such great chemistry with each other too. Every single character that the actors preform in the film (from the biggest to the smallest) is completely well rounded. Which is great as it gives them all some really meaty roles to play with. That being said though, there are a few among the cast that do stand out the most. There’s no question that the best performance in the film belongs to Ana de Armas, who was splendid in the role as “Marta”. de Armas is without the true heart and soul of KNIVES OUT as she gives the film its grounded humanity with all the madness going on around her from the rest of the cast. Daniel Craig was terrific as Foghorn Leghorn sounding private detective “Benoit Blanc”. You can tell watching the film that Craig is having an absolute ball playing this character. Chris Evans is also very good as in his role as the rather dickish “Ransom”. Like Craig, he’s clearly relishing portraying someone who’s the complete opposite of his dignified work as “Captain America” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Now where there any aspects of KNIVES OUT that flawed? There were a couple of little minor ones. As I stated before when comes to the film’s politically/socially charged elements, it’s very on-the-nose in how its approached (since its done rather humorously, it didn’t bother me too much). Plus while the twists and turns of story can really surprising at times, there were also some that I must admit I found to be pretty predictable as well.
Overall while I may have had a couple of little nitpicks I had with it, I had an absolute great time with KNIVES OUT from beginning to end. Director Rian Johnson continues his winning streak by delivering yet another terrific gem with this film. It’s a smart, witty, constantly surprising, satirical and extremely enjoyable romp that brings something fresh to the whodunit murder mystery sub-genre. If you’re someone who enjoys or is a big fan of Agatha Christie style murder mystery films like these, I highly and wholeheartedly recommend KNIVES OUT for sure. Believe me, you’ll definitely get a huge kick out of it.
KNIVES OUT is currently playing in cinemas across Australia
Review written by Bede Jermyn