Knives Out

Knives Out ★★★★½

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I wonder if Rian Johnson took a leaf out of Paul Feig's book in making Knives Out.

Both directors have been on the receiving end of pathetic campaigns of abuse in the last couple of years for having the temerity to do something different with kids' film franchises that a bunch of grown men without any boob or willy touching experience had taken unofficial ownership of.

Feig responded by making the excellent A Simple Favour, a much quieter and more lowkey project that allowed him to focus on something completely different in his filmmaking and place him far away from Ghostbusters crybabies. Johnson's Knives Out isn't quite so lowkey due to the heavy (and excellent) publicity campaign behind it, and its ensemble cast. But similar to A Simple Favour, it's very far removed from a galaxy far, far away.

What Knives Out also achieves is to remind me, if I needed it, that Johnson is one of the best American directors around and somebody who hasn't shown one iota of being unsure in any of the films he's made so far. As stunning as I found The Last Jedi and as disappointed as I was that he wasn't kept on for The Rise of Skywalker, in a way perhaps I was actually quite glad that he busied himself with something else.

He's too good a director and seemingly too nice a guy for me to be able to take another massive dose of social media whining from the worst dregs of e-society just because he put quite a lot of women in a Star Wars film and suggested that Luke Skywalker might be less than perfect. He deserves better and despite ongoing efforts from numerous sock-wanking dipshits to stick negative reviews out online and give it zero out of ten on IMDb, he's almost certainly going to get it with Knives Out.

And I have been a fan of Johnson from the first film I saw from him, Looper, and have remained so through the other three films he'd made. For some reason I thought he'd made a couple more than that. These bloody directors who take their time and make us wait to see films from them, who do they think they are. Maybe the trolls are right, what a bastard.

Despite my enjoyment of all his films, Knives Out worried me for one simple reason.

I really don't get along with whodunnits.

It really doesn't matter whether it's the traditional Agatha Christie or Christie-esque examples of the genre or the jokier, spoofing versions. Once you've seen or read a story about a group of people gathered together in one place who all might have murdered some poor sod, you've seen them pretty much all of them. I generally find them immensely frustrating and intolerable.

So even as I enjoyed the first half an hour or so of Knives Out, I was still wary that at some point this was going to descend into the usual round of 'she did it, he did it, no actually they did it, scrap that it was the cook, nah actually it was the fucking poodle' that these stories almost always descend into. I trusted that Johnson would entertain me about as far as I could be with this sort of story but I wasn't ready to believe he would offer much more than that.

He did, though. He did it not by completely upending the whole genre and trying something outrageously different. Some simple tweaks to the usual progression of such stories are really all he's provided here and it's quite remarkable what a difference it makes. Actually having who did it known to us from before the halfway point and then watching them trying to avoid detection while also having us on their side - these aren't huge adjustments that Johnson has made but the knock-on effect is marvellous.

It then becomes a whodunnit within a whodunnit (or something about doughnuts as Benoit Blanc would suggest) as the focus shifts on to an alternative suggestion as to how a crime may have been commited, and why Blanc is there in the first place. Even with all this in place, Johnson could still have found a way to irritate me. It could still have, in order, pointed the finger at everyone as potential suspects but he doesn't try and do that.

Thinking about it, maybe that's really the key to why I liked this so very much. Sure, almost everyone here is packing an unpleasant agenda, from the "little Nazi masturbating in the bathroom" to the "trust fund prick", but Johnson never feels the need to villify them further by painting them as possible murderers. Again, it's not a grand rewriting of ideas but it makes such a difference.

The most agreeable aspect to the genre has always been the ensemble casts, the element I have always constantly enjoyed in such films. Interestingly, Johnson places Ana de Armas as the unequivocal lead of a seriously great cast rather than reducing her role to give others some screen time. As a result, one or two don't get quite the time to shine that one might hope for (Lakeith Stanfield and Jamie Lee Curtis perhaps suffer most of all on that front) but that is always the danger of such a cast in any film.

The upside is the strengthening of de Armas' character and hard work on making her genuinely sympathetic. It's a genre that has usually thrived on everyone being a suspect but, again, Johnson shows there is a different way. de Armas is so strong, too, and while I have enjoyed her in the couple of things I've seen her in to date, this is the first time I was left believing there was some serious acting talent here.

Craig, channelling just a touch of his accent and playfulness from Logan Lucky, is as terrifically fun as everyone is already agreeing he is. But whenever I see him showing off such superb comic timing and depth to his sense of humour, I'm left frustrated that he seems so dead set against showing that in his James Bond tenure. Maybe the penny will have dropped between him making Knives Out and No Time to Die.

The ending pleasingly doesn't go for a shock twist, or even ambiguity. Just a wry smile and a nice little dig in the ribs of anti-immigration sorts. Again, all very subtle. All worries had been put to bed, the expected disappointments did not occur, and I even got a lovely little M. Emmet Walsh cameo. Alright, Rian, maybe there really is something in this genre after all. Or maybe Agatha Christie was actually quite shit.

Either way, between this and WAGatha Christie, maybe 2019 was the year of whodunnits winning me over.

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