After director Rian Johnson’s last movie, The Film That Shall Not Be Named, it makes sense that he would want to have a little fun, you know?
The Last Jedi, irrevocably and unavoidably, became the centre of an exhausting critical maelstrom, lightning strikes of Hot Takes crashing down from on high to set us all on fire all over again just when we thought it was all over.
But what Rian Johnson really excels in is not franchise blockbusters – so it should be no surprise that The Last Jedi just wasn’t a good example of his best work. What he’s done best over the course of his intermittent career – Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper – is mesh, with gloriously enthusiastic genre know-how, a bunch of different movie styles into one masterfully cohesive narrative. Whether comedy, noir, action, sci-fi, romance, familial epic, Johnson has, so often, shown that he knows how to draw together disparate genres into a coherent whole. Which makes Knives Out, his latest, a far more promising endeavour than his controversial preceding effort.
It’s a crisp, simple set-up – a self-made billionaire dies suddenly and mysteriously, leaving his grasping and violently dysfunctional family to vie for his fortune and reputation, as we enter the story via his caretaker, an outsider who seems the only person able to view the utter insanity and appalling exploitation of this wealthy clan. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the last of the gentleman detectives, hired by a mysterious benefactor to investigate the mysterious death, and uncover a few family secrets along the way.
And look, let’s not beat around the bush here: the main draw of this story is the cast. Essentially, Knives Out is an excuse for a collection of tremendous character actors (Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis) a chance to dive into some hilarious caricatures and yell obscenities at each other surrounded by a set that looks like the backlot for a partiucalarly chaotic Christmas pantomime. If you just come here for two hours of watching people you love have silly amounts of fun with characters that could have been cribbed straight from a Lemony Snicket novel, you won’t be dissapointed. Craig, especially, as Blanc, is having an absurdly good time, far removed from the dead-eyed phone-in hunk of his Bond movies. Not to mention Chris Evans, who seems pleased to return to his original career territory of playing Hot Cinema Assholes after all that time stuck being America’s good guy.
But, while just bringing that cast together would be excuse enough for this film to exist, it’s the mystery at its heart that really lifts it into something magical. I grew up in a house constructed mostly from Agatha Christie books and have long-since been inducted into the world of classic mystery storytelling, and that’s just what Knives Out delivers. All the clues are laid out for you to solve the mystery before Blanc gets everyone into the drawing room to reveal the solution, and watching the complex tale unwind is honestly a pleasure. I don’t want to give anything away about the contents or answers, except to say that watching it slowly picked apart is a delightful and totally head-spinning caper.
Knives Out feels like a return to form for Johnson; after The Last Jedi, it’s good to see him back where he belongs. Juggling genres, playing with amazing character actors, and laying on his dry sense of humour as thick as the script will allow it – this is Johnson at his best. And I can’t reccommend it enough.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Polygon)