Lively and satisfying modern take on an old genre
I don’t really think of myself as the sort of person who gives out five star reviews. Regular readers will know by now that I take life with a heavy dose of cynicism, and even when I want to be I am rarely impressed. Which is why I find myself in a very unusual position in giving Rian Johnson’s Knives Out five stars. The film centres on Ana de Armas’ character, Marta, who has worked as a nurse for, and become close friends with, Christopher Plummer’s crime author, Harlan Thrombey. It opens with Harlan’s apparent suicide, and the assembled family trying to deal with the tragedy of his death. Various investigators including Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc also convene at the suitably gothic house in attempts to resolve the mystery surrounding Harlan’s death.
It is really hard to talk about Knives Out without giving anything away, so apologies for how broad strokes this review is going to be. Let it be said that the plot is full of surprises and pleasing pay-offs. I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie adaptations, and just like her works, Johnson’s film maintains a sense of fun and almost whimsy in spite of its at times dark content. Much of this comes courtesy of Benoit Blanc, a private detective anonymously hired to investigate the case, played by Daniel Craig. Craig’s accent has been written about at length, but he somehow managed to pull it off, and by the end of the film I’d forgotten that he’s actually English (whether someone from the southern states could forget this is another matter).
The movie has a large cast, and it is certainly a worthy collection of film nobility. But though it has been billed as an ensemble piece, the film is really about Marta. She is at the centre of the plot, and it is her experience we focus on as viewers. She becomes the foil against which we judge all the other characters. The slightly on-the-nose satirising of the American left-wing middle classes feels a bit obvious at times (and is maybe an attempt to rise to the level of Get Out), but it is rare to find a mainstream film that engages with the experiences of second generation immigrants. The oft-proclaimed love mixed with total lack of interest the family show towards Marta demonstrates that rather than seeing her as an individual, each character treats her as an accessory to their own self-image. Slowly but surely their cracks and flaws are revealed, and the movie revels in showing us their truths.
Knives Out will keep you guessing and entertained, while maybe also asking you to reflect on your own behaviour. The characters are types, much as you’d find in any classic murder mystery (the overshadowed son, the playboy, the troubled marrieds, etc), but here we’re made to think honestly about where we’d fit. ‘Am I really a Marta, or am I more a Meg?’ The film points to the sometimes gaping void between appearances and reality, and asks us: ‘how big is yours?’
We come back now to why I think this film deserves five stars. Ultimately this is because it’s a great example of its kind. It knows exactly what it wants to be and pulls it off with aplomb. Its social commentary uses the genre to make us think about our own lives and the world around us, without taking itself so seriously that it has greater ambitions than it can accommodate. The acting is smooth and steady throughout – even with so many famous faces it is easy to get lost in their characters. It is at times genuinely very funny, and it has a freshness and liveliness you wouldn’t expect of a basic setup that we have seen so many times before. So even though it goes against my usual instinct, I have to applaud Knives Out for taking a genre I love so much and updating it seamlessly. I think even Agatha herself would be impressed, and there is no higher praise than that.
I’d quite like to do a deep-dive into Knives Out when I’ve had the chance to rewatch it. There’s a lot of symbolism and imagery that is clearly designed to appeal to cinema nerds and film buffs. Is that something you’d be interested in?
Have you been able to catch Knives Out yet, and if so, what did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!