Knives Out

Knives Out ★★★★

Rian Johnson would appear to have yet to repeat himself, so it'll be interesting to see where he goes from here. His latest offering is Knives Out, a murder mystery that plays very much like an Agatha Christie whodunnit updated for the modern age, with all the discourse that entails.

The scene: the Massachusetts mansion of world-famous detective novelist Harlan Thrombey, found dead of a slit throat the morning after his 85th birthday celebration. His household includes not only his young nurse Marta and housekeeper Fran but also his daughter Linda, her husband Richard and their son Ransom; son Walt, his wife Donna and their son Jacob; and widowed daughter-in-law Joni and her daughter Meg. The police are investigating the circumstances surrounding Harlan's apparent suicide, but renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc, having been been hired by an anonymous client, suspects foul play, and enlists Marta, who had a strong bond with the dead man, to assist in his sleuthing.

Johnson's plot mixes thriller elements into its methodology, but it carefully and lovingly hews pretty closely to the traditional way of doing things. In this way it manages to be both exciting and thoroughly old-school, while slipping in bits and pieces of social commentary to keep it fresh (though it's arguable how much the references to the alt-right and Trump's immigration policy actually contribute to the film's overall effect). Throughout it's the mystery that takes centre stage, and while it's by no means above the capabilities of the Queen of Crime (then again, nothing is), Johnson turns the screws very well. For much of its duration I was worried that it would merely be an exercise in suspense, with the identity of the killer known to us but not to Blanc, but it stays true to genre conventions in satisfying fashion; regardless of the fact that I spotted the big twist before it came, the film would have been a total letdown without it.

The Christie adaptations of the '70s and '80s boasted truly legendary casts (particularly Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile), as did Robert Altman's Gosford Park. In the way it uses its cast, Knives Out has more in common with the former two films than with the latter; Johnson isn't the subversive director of ensembles that Altman was, but that's no criticism of his film. All the actors here are visibly having a terrific time, most of all Daniel Craig as the idiosyncratic detective and Toni Collette as Joni, but the most impressive work is done by Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda and Ana de Armas as Marta. The dialogue is humorous, the tone enticing and the entertainment value tremendous.

PS. Rian Johnson is utterly insane if he thinks Peter Ustinov is the best Poirot.

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