These days, Rian Johnson is famous (or infamous, depending on which camp you’re a part of) for his directorial efforts in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so much so that his previous films Looper and Brick feel like they’re of a different lifetime entirely. The eighth episode of the Skywalker Saga shook the very fabric of the Galaxy Far Far Away and obliterated the internet, for better or worse. I’ve never shied away from sharing just how much I love the film; how it rekindled my passion for Star Wars to an astronomical degree, and the zealous comment section has never shied away from accusing me of being a Star Wars-hating Disney shill who kisses Mickey Mouse’s ass for a living. But nothing compares to the furious backlash and spiteful personal attacks the director himself has been on the receiving end of, since the film hit the silver screen on Christmas in 2017.
A retaliation of this magnitude could’ve easily sent a person spiralling downwards, understandably so. But not Johnson, who has always remained calm, composed and frankly, witty as he soldiered through the storm. Not only did he remain cool and level-headed, he went back to his writing cave. And like Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man, he banged and clanged and used his genius to craft a magnificent weapon (or in this case, a screenplay which he actualises into a superb feature film, one that has got nothing to do with any existing IPs or established universes). I’m of course talking about Knives Out — a spectacularly twisty whodunit that harkens back to the golden days of Agatha Christie, yet feels completely fresh and modern. One that tickles your funny bone as much as it titillates your mind.
The premise, as most whodunits are, is simple. On the morning after his 85th birthday, the body of a billionaire, Harlan Thrombey is discovered in his bedroom with his throat slit. The doctors first rule it a suicide, but a detective by the name of Benoit Blanc suspects there might be foul play. He begins investigating and interrogating all the members of the Harlan mansion household.
Like a black hole in outer space, Rian Johnson sucks you right from the getgo into the zany eccentric billionaire world — mind you, it is very zany and all the characters talk like they’ve got a stick stuck up their bum, because frankly, they do — that he has built and takes you on this incredible journey that’s scattered with clues and clever misdirection. Different characters tell different stories of what happened on the night of Harlan’s birthday, some blame each other, others don’t. But everybody seems to have a motive. The Thormbey mansion, in which the majority of the film is set in, is rich in detail (hats off to art director, Jeremy Woodward and set decorator David Schlesinger, who bring Johnson’s vision to life, gloriously).
It’s the kind of film that will leave you chewing at every word uttered, scrutinizing every inch of the house — “oooh! What do the bouquet of knives hanging by the wall mean” you wonder –, trying to figure out who did it before the detective does. And right when you (or at least, me, being the intellectual git that I think I am), assume you’ve got everything deduced right down to the T, Rian Johnson flips everything on its head and blows your brain to dust. The brilliance of Knives Out is that Johnson, just like he did with The Last Jedi, once again messes with the formula (though, I am positive that the whodunit fanbase is going to be far more accepting). The identity of the murderer is revealed in the middle of the film — yeah, WTF, was the entire cinema’s reaction too — and he does so in a way that just sneaks up at you like a Bandicoot in the dark.
Throughout the movie, you’re offered different perspectives by various members of the Thrombey mansion via flashback, as Det Blanc interrogates (we see characters having conversations, debating, having heated arguments, sipping wine, taking a dump [not kidding], etc). Then we get a flashback of two characters doing something seemingly routine and cheery as they engage in friendly banter when the proverbial noose slowly begins to tighten. By the time you realise there’s a rope around your neck, it’s too late. It’s a fantastically directed scene of pure thrills.
Imagine going through the biggest, most heart-stopping loop on a rollercoaster, only to realise that the best part’s yet to come. There are plenty more secrets to uncover, plenty more characters who are letting out less than they know. Even the dogs have something to say. Johnson is able to reveal who did it very early on because Knives Out is as much about the how and why as it is the who. It’s about the characters — most of whom are rich and entitled white people — and their motivations. Each one of them is interesting in their own right, played by charismatic stars who bounce off each other wonderfully.
Jamie Lee Curtis, plays Harlan’s daughter Linda, a self-made businesswoman… who took a 1 million dollar loan from her father to start the business (ironic jokes like this are scattered throughout the film). Michael Shannon is Walt, Harlan’s highly incapable son who wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for his father. He thinks he’s pretty damn great, though. Toni Collette is the widowed daughter in law of Harlan who at one point has a line that goes, “I once read a Tweet about a New Yorker article about you.” Katherine Langford is Harlan’s granddaughter Meg, who attends an expensive liberal arts college on her grandpa’s money, is a genuinely nice person. But what happens when her back gets pushed against the wall? In a cheeky bit of casting, Chris Evans (yes, Mr Captain America himself) plays an insufferable dick.
Ana De Armas (Ryan Gosling’s holographic girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049) is Harlan’s nurse Marta, who has a condition that literally causes her to puke every time she lies. So, Blanc keeps her by his side throughout the investigation. Despite being amongst a bunch of talented and popular A-listers, De Armas stands out, bringing the right amount of charm and naivety. But it’s Daniel Craig who steals the whole show! Craig, who plays Benoit Blanc, a detective who’s hired anonymously (another mystery to be solved), is exhilarating to behold from start to finish. Craig has always been a good actor, but here, he’s an enigma — a cult of personality. The utterly intoxicating, laugh-out-loud monologue he delivers in the end alone is worth the damn ticket price. What a bloody piece of cinematic treasure!
I also love that Knives Out works on two different levels. It works fabulously as an entertaining whodunit, but for those of us who enjoy sociopolitical commentary, this movie offers plenty more to chew on. This is a story about ignorant and entitled white people — some of whom are Trump supporters, some of them are not, but they all make up the type of white people we see in Get Out — who believe it in their bones that being wealthy is their birthright. (The will grandpa Thrombey left in his death, is an integral part of this story.) It doesn’t matter if they’ve worked for it or not, they think they deserve all of Harlan’s riches because of course, it’s “theirs.”
Most of them are not overtly cruel, but all of them are repulsive in some way. In one scene we see the family members debate whether it’s right for Trump to build a wall and deport immigrants, right in front of Marta. But you know, they have no actual empathy, no even the people in the family who say they’re against Trump. They have no empathy, nor do they care or understand anything about the world outside their bubble. Politics does not screw the rich, the same way it screwss the middle class and lower. So, the film isn’t just engaging because you want to find out who the killer is, it’s also a rousing experience in which you anticipate these rich assholes (hopefully) getting their comeuppance.
But even if you’re not remotely interested in any of this, Knives Out is still a dazzling whodunit. Everything is meticulously detailed. Things that seemingly happen in passing early on in the movie, come back to play an important role later on. The twists and reveals that unfold always make sense — you won’t find any deus ex machinas here. And Johnson? My God is he back with a bang. Back with a vengeance. Back to prove why he’s one of the most exciting filmmakers working in cinema today.
Knives Out hits Malaysian cinemas this 27 November.