Inviting his family to his mansion one night, ailing crime novelist Harlan Thrombey [Christopher Plummer] is mysteriously found dead the following morning. Appearing out of nowhere, renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) offers his services to the local police as they pick their way through the contrasting alibis of Harlan’s assembled family. As each has a reason to be cut from their father’s will, the familial knives come out quickly when his immigrant nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) is named as the sole beneficiary of his estate.
…a modern remix that resolutely runs on rails.
Director Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’ is a composite of influences. Pulling all the threads together, we start with J.B. Priestly’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, Agatha Christie’s ’Crooked House’, the UK’s ‘Midsummer Murders‘ series, the US’s ‘Murder She Wrote’ whilst finally arriving at ‘Columbo’ crossed with Hercule Poirot for the chief investigator. -Sounds all a bit familiar? Well, that’s kind of the point – or the plot – to be more accurate. You see, if you enjoy a mystery where the assembled characters are filleted by the smartest detective in the room, then the master’s study is where ‘Knives Out’ is headed. However, the real fly in the ointment is the reputation of director Rian Johnson.
Having cultivated a contrasting reputation for remixing genres with high school drama in ‘Brick’, time-travel in ‘Looper’ and sci-fi western in ‘The Last Jedi’, your expectations might be for a radical remix of a Marplesque mystery. Instead, what we end up with is Kentucky Fried CSI.
Told more like a black comic farce than a mystery, posh reprehensible folk basically crawl over each other to get to a dead man’s cash. Driving the onscreen investigation is Daniel Craig. Equipped with a louche Louisiana drawl on loan from Kevin Spacey in ‘House of Cards‘, a richly-splendored cast stand between him and the truth. Jamie Lee Curtis is the matriarch-in-waiting, Michael Shannon the needy-obedient-son, Don Johnson the-wastrel-husband and Toni Colette the new-age-dreamer for a daughter. Yet, pushing his tongue furthest through Rian Johnson’s cheek is ‘Captain America‘s’ Chris Evans as the de rigour black sheep. Having wandered furthest from the flock, his carnivorous enjoyment at his relatives’ financial distress is a delicious delight. And yet none of these assembled bullets are really fired in anger because that is saved for the plot.
Departing from Agatha Christie’s well-laid template of introducing a hateful victim who is murdered shortly afterwards, Rian Johnson instead allows his audience to travel ahead of the cast. Armed with the real identity of the murderer from the outset, the intention is for mystery, not the outcome. Central to this sale is the performance of Ana de Armas. Stepping out from the shadow of her holographic introduction in ‘Bladerunner 2049‘, she brings a much-needed plausibility to her carer for Christopher Plummer’s Harlan Thrombey.
So, depending on your appetite for a modern remix that resolutely runs on rails albeit with a modern cast, this could be one journey that never leaves the station. Enjoyable for the shared ham that’s on offer, Craig and co. carve up a familiar slice of murderous mystery, although you should really reserve the best cutlery for Agatha Christie’s back catalogue.