Knives Out

 

starstarstarstarstar

 


Daniel Craig comes close to playing Hercule Poirot in an engaging new tale of detection.

 
Knives Out  
 

Some people now associate Rian Johnson first and foremost with the Star Wars franchise, while others prefer to recall with pleasure his earlier offbeat features Brick (2005) and Looper (2012). However, it is hardly likely that any of his admirers would have predicted that he would now give us a thriller which, despite its American setting, is a fond return to the kind of detective stories associated with the name of Agatha Christie. A further surprise was in store when this venture, Knives Out, gained rave reviews at the London Film Festival. Christie may have remained hugely popular with the general public, but by and large critics today tend to look down on whodunnits in the form fashioned by her in the 1930s. Yet what we get from Johnson is no modern distortion of the kind found in recent TV updates of her novels but an affectionate pastiche, a piece still suspenseful and engaging while remaining true to the original mould.

 

The corpse found at the outset is that of a celebrated thriller writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer seen in flashbacks and undimmed by age), who has died after celebrating his 85th birthday with his family. It looks like suicide, but somebody in the house has anonymously called in a private detective (Daniel Craig) in advance of the death. This man is not Hercule Poirot but he has an equally unlikely name, Benoit Blanc, and he has his own idiosyncratic ideas about investigating crimes just as Christie’s Poirot did. All of the family, a largely obnoxious bunch, become suspects when the idea of suicide is challenged. These roles are admirably filled by well-known players (see the cast list below), but the other character with a more substantial role is Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (the excellent Ana de Armas). At one stage, Benoit Blanc even suggests that she is becoming Watson to his Sherlock.

 

The Christie formula is felt early on with Blanc and the police questioning the family members in turn, although Johnson’s screenplay takes the opportunity to illustrate their answers with flashbacks which reveal that they are lying. There are also extra elements added, but implied rather than hammered home - thus modern America is in the film’s sights when it comes to a wealthy white family pretending to be nice to an immigrant like Marta but actually very ready to turn on her.

 

However, Knives Out functions first and foremost as an old-fashioned genre piece (rather more so than Robert Altman’s more elaborated Gosford Park of 2001). Consequently, while finding the film very pleasurable, I remained surprised that the critics’ acclaim had been so very positive for all that the film has some neat lines and well-judged performances. As the climax approaches, we come to another Christie convention in which all the suspects are gathered together and the detective reveals step by step how he has deduced what really happened so that he can finally unmask a killer. The plotting here by Rian Johnson is brilliantly constructed, quite as complex and clever as any actually created in the golden age of British crime fiction. This is really great stuff with Craig on excellent form: if you don’t favour the classic Christie style, Knives Out is probably not for you, but for everybody else this is a film to savour and more and more so as it leads to its resolution.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, Riki Lindhome, Ed Patterson, K Callan, Noah Segan, M. Emmet Walsh, Marlene Forte, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

 

Dir Rian Johnson, Pro Ram Bergman and Rian Johnson, Screenplay Rian Johnson, Ph Steve Yedlin, Pro Des David Crank, Ed Bob Ducsay, Music Nathan Johnson, Costumes Jenny Eagan, Dialect coach Diego Daniel Pardo.

 

Lionsgate/MRC/T-Street-Lionsgate.
130 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 27 November 2019. Cert. 12A.