It’s hard to avoid the fact that, increasingly, every time I go to the cinema the film I’m seeing is based on something else, is part of a larger whole or, simply, is just intentionally over complicated by things outside of the movie.
Rian Johnson’s latest, Knives Out, then is a refreshing antidote to this (and a refreshing antidote to his last picture, the surprisingly controversial The Last Jedi – in fact, in many ways, it feels more like a follow-up to Looper taking a genre picture and doing something new with it).
Written, produced and directed by Johnson, it’s a whodunnit in the classic mould with a body found in (the American equivalent of) a stately home, a family riven by intrigue, and plenty of potential motives at the centre of which is a detective with a slightly bizarre accent.
What Johnson has done brilliantly is two things, first he’s assembled one of the best casts I’ve seen in a long time and second he’s found a great way to spin a very well trodden plot to keep it fresh and, most importantly, keep the audience guessing.
Jamie-Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Christopher Plummer are just the headline names that make up the central family and along with them are Daniel Craig as the detective and Ana de Armas as ‘the help’.
Craig plays private detective Benoit Blanc and puts in a turn that, in many ways, sums up a big chunk of the film. With an unexpected southern bordering into Cajun (but impossible to entirely pin down) accent, he treads a line between seriousness and ridiculousness brilliantly doing a modern version of the Poirot thing and leading us along the twists and turns to reveal the ultimate culprit.
De Armas meanwhile plays the nurse of the deceased writer that sets the story in motion.
Her role here is brilliantly two fold as she is, undeniably, the film’s most complete character and acts as our way into the film from the real world while also, as it goes on, becoming pivotal to the unravelling of the mystery (I definitely shouldn’t say anything more in that regard).
All of this de Armas does brilliantly being the grounding point of the whole enterprise and providing something of an extra talking point that looks into prejudices and issues of race in modern America in a startlingly unassuming way.
While the performances are top notch throughout (even if many of the characters are, understandably, somewhat two dimensional, though maybe not as much as they first seem) it’s all tied together by Johnson’s direction and writing which does a great job of revealing the layers of the mystery like a particularly well peeled onion.
To do this we get judicious use of over lapping flashbacks, enough action to keep things exciting without ever going too far and some production design that is second to none in marrying something modern with the classic tropes of, as it gets referenced in the film its self, ‘the Clue house’ (for us English viewer, thats the American name for the board game Cluedo).
This is all tied together with plenty of humour that means things never get too serious, despite the subject matter, and a genuinely satisfying outcome (a challenge in this well worn type of story) meaning that, while maybe not ground breaking, Knives Out is a refreshing change in the current cinematic climate and a great way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema.