Review: Knives Out

Director: Rian Johnson

Stars: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Toni Collette

I had a disquieting experience going to see Knives Out which I think I want to talk about if you’ll indulge me.

Before the feature started, during the previews of coming attractions, the trailer for Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit played. A man – bald, heavy-set – was exiting the screening room, presumably to go to the bathroom before the film. But the trailer made him stop and watch by the exit. When Waititi’s imaginary Hitler character saluted on screen, this man reciprocated. Then he continued on his way.

Uneasy at the thought that I might be sharing this experience with a real live genuine Nazi, I still settled into the film when it started. A good third or so in, and there’s a scene in which some of the main characters suspects discuss the recent reemergence of Nazism in America. This same man gave a cheer. My blood ran a little cold. Very soon after he laughed heartily when a far-right character called a counterpart a ‘liberal snowflake’.

Now, this could have all been trolling, much like the hobbies of the obnoxious teenager in the movie played by Jaeden Martell, but I was forced to consider that it wasn’t. That this man and his actions were sincere. Talk of far right extremism is rife in our media (perhaps too rife; a form of normalising in itself?), but it has always felt, to me, at arm’s length. To an extent we all live in our own socio-political bubbles, I suppose. But this shared experience exposed to me that, maybe, such extremes aren’t too far from home.

Why bring this up at all? Because Rian Johnson’s Knives Out – the film I was sharing with this man – directly addresses some of the most contentious points held by the far-right.

Having riled up the Star Wars nerds by daring to make their franchise interesting, Rian Johnson’s latest is something of a cleanser before he dives deeper into the Disney behemoth. As little personal projects go, its a hoot. A whodunnit crammed with famous faces, corralled by an on-form Daniel Craig, resurrecting his southern drawl from Logan Lucky.

Famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead, seemingly by his own hand. He was found the morning after a party, at which he systematically made enemies of all his heirs. There are plenty of suspects, but the police aren’t even sure there’s foul play here. In steps Craig’s Benoit Blanc; the last of the great sleuths, hired to get involved by an unknown benefactor.

While the insipid heirs-to-be all get their time before the camera in the first act, Johnson has already tipped that his movie is going to forefront another. Enter the wonderful Ana de Armas as Thrombey’s nurse Marta Cabrera; a soul so honest and kind that the very thought of telling a lie makes her physically sick. Flashbacks reveal that Johnson is actually tweaking the formula of the whodunnit. Instead of asking audiences to ponder the culprit, he shows us whodidn’tdoit, then piles on the tension as they start drawing exactly the wrong kind of attention.

de Armas becomes the lead in an ensemble piece, and she shines. This isn’t much of a surprise. I recall going to see Eli Roth’s little-loved Knock Knock and realising quickly that she was the pick of the bunch in a small cast. Johnson must’ve seen it, too. And while the pure-bloods of the Thrombey clan gather to indict her, Johnson makes sure our sympathies are placed squarely with the young immigrant girl… You see where I’m going with this…?

Knives Out isn’t the first eat-the-rich feature set at a stately home to arrive this autumn. Ready Or Not was a firecracker. A different beast, granted, but the similarities are there; enough to make one sense a stirring in Hollywood. Collective concerns about the state of things. The ‘us vs them’ narrative being drawn is reflective of a society increasingly encouraged to polarise itself. A nasty development that flies in the face of so many warnings from history. Through Harlan, Marta has learned about the misdeeds and bitter rivalries between those seemingly entitled to inheriting his riches; the pure aren’t quite so pure once you make even a cursory scratch beneath the surface.

Not that it needs it, but Knives Out receives a mid-film boost from the late arrival of black sheep of the family, Ransom (Chris Evans in this fall’s hunkiest range of knitwear). The actor seems to be enjoying his new found freedom from Marvel. He’s looser and better than we’ve seen him in a while.

Johnson rockets confidently through material that stretches out just over the 2 hour mark. He’s in his comfort zone here (he directed one of the great family-squabble episodes of Breaking Bad) and notoriety has allowed him, seemingly, the cast of his dreams. Production design details are all also quite pleasing.

Yet I’m left wondering what this bald, heavy-set man thought of it. If indeed he is what he seemed, did any of the film’s commentary get through to him? One of the film’s most indelible images places de Armas’ Marta literally above those that seek to ostracise her (who do yo think everyone in that header image is staring at?). Knives Out is a fun, almost-ingenious, wonderfully unique offering from the often predictable main stream of cinema releases. And it has a leftist agenda. But are these films enough? What more can or should we be doing to reach out to those around us who, for whatever reason, see a future in xenophobia and fear mongering? Breezy as it is, Knives Out reflects troubling times.

Score: 

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