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Knives Out: A star-studded whodunnit-comedy with a sharp twist


directed by Rian Johnson

Starring Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette, this murder-mystery comedy is enjoyable in its own knowing way.

Rian Johnson may have gained Hollywood’s approval when he was invited to write and direct 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but his path to glory was through a life of crime. He proved his chops with a modern, teenage-centric take on film noir in 2005’s Brick before tackling a kooky con-artist story in The Brothers Bloom and the terrific time-travel hitman thriller Looper. He is back in his preferred milieu with Knives Out, a star-studded whodunnit-comedy in which the writer-director sends up the genre, then puts his own twist on the story’s telling.

After celebrating his 85th birthday, Christopher Plummer’s crime-writer patriarch, Harlan Thrombey, promptly dies in the night in an apparent suicide. A week later, as his eclectic family is being questioned by a local good cop/dumb cop duo, noted Southern sleuth Benoit Blanc (a scene-stealing Daniel Craig) does a Poirot and turns up to ask some questions of his own.

The superficially tight-knit family is rapidly revealed to have threads that, when pulled, fray to betray that everyone has a motive. And everyone’s story has holes.

The large ensemble cast includes a rejuvenated Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette – typically brilliant as the “lifestyle guru” daughter-in-law who is still on the family’s payroll years after her husband’s death. Less satisfying is Chris Evans, as the petulant grandson, and an underused Michael Shannon.

But this story revolves around nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, a Cuban actress last seen in Bladerunner 2049 and soon to star with Craig in the new James Bond). Marta provides the heart to a story populated by conniving blood-suckers, and gives the director the opportunity for some anti-Trump and pro-immigrant rhetoric. Although not inappropriate, unwelcome or unfunny, it’s one of the film’s many nose-tapping moments. Others include some obvious signalling of whodunnit tropes, including references to Holmes and Watson and a clip of Murder, She Wrote dubbed into Spanish.

But you don’t watch a murder mystery for subtlety, and the pleasures are manifold in the pacey editing of a very witty script, and the actors’ scenery-chewing antics.

Only when the action suddenly leaves Chez Thrombey and the tight plotting starts to unravel does the film have to work valiantly to tie everything together, delivering some strange surprises. Knives Out is at its sharpest when Detective Blanc is doing the talking.



Video: STUDIOCANAL New Zealand

This article was first published in the December 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.