Oh to imagine how much fun this all-star cast must have had during the making of Knives Out, the off-the-wall whodunit homage from director Rian Johnson.
Although its ultimate revelation isn’t quite as electrifying as watching the entire thing unfold, the snapping wit that drives this film is impossible to resist. And – surprise – most of it comes from a show-stealing Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, the story’s dazzling poker-faced sleuth who is anonymously hired to eye – or babysit – the bickering relatives of befallen mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) when he is rightfully presumed murdered after being found with his throat cut in a tiny, ornate attic.
Craig’s antebellum accent, not dissimilar to Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, gives us some of the film’s most biting dialogue, charming and casual as the detective watches a splintered family quick to point fingers (or knives) in the name of their deceased – and ridiculously wealthy – patriarch.
It’s classic Agatha Christie split amongst a madcap family drama, shot in a way that would make Wes Anderson nod in approval. The script is idiosyncratic throughout, playing these big personalities against each other right until the very end.
Johnson is fantastic as he navigates the film’s many personalities, bringing out something unique in each one. Whether that’s juxtaposing straight-laced lead detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) with Craig’s flamboyant Blanc, or enhancing the playful performances by Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda: Harlan’s oldest daughter) and Toni Collette (Joni: Instagram influencer) with perfectly timed close ups as they desperately try to manipulate the situation.
Although Curtis, Collette and Craig aren’t the only explosive roles in this oddball stew. Even Michael Shannon gets to leave his serious shell as Harlan’s neurotic son Walt, who runs his father’s publishing company, and Chris Evans quite obviously relishing his part as smug bad boy Ransom, the family’s black sheep and perennial suspect.
Casting against type and constantly clashing these big, bickering personalities with one another could have easily led to disaster, but Knives Out is so self-aware and confident that all the obnoxious crazy is tempered by strong, soulful moments of self-reflexivity.
Although the film wouldn’t work half as well as it does without the lesser known Ana de Armas, who plays Harlan’s caregiver and closest friend Marta. Her inability to lie without throwing up is not only a propulsive plot device, but an endearing trait perfectly in-line with the warmth and charisma she brings to the role. Marta is the perfect empathetic anchor for all the on-screen chaos, and quite often the unwilling punching bag once this family tires of pressing on each other’s throats and targets her as the one link that could ruin their chances of inheritance. Knives Out isn’t shy about satirising the ultra-privileged as desperate, terrified and manipulative.
The script never leans to heavy on misdirection, as lesser murder mysteries are wont to do. In fact, the full story is given to the audience quite early, tasking us as viewers just to sit back and enjoy watching the cast piece it all together. Perhaps this was the smartest possible move for Knives Out, highlighting Johnson’s penchant for flipping genre films ever-so-slightly with a playful sense of fan service that, importantly, never condescends or alienates anyone who loves a good whodunit.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The writer reviewed Knives Out as part of the 55th annual Chicago International Film Festival. It is now in cinemas across Australia.