Whatever you might have thought about The Last Jedi, there’s no doubt that Rian Johnson is an eminently capable filmmaker. For rock-solid proof of the matter, check out his latest creation: Agatha Christie-esque murder-mystery Knives Out. The all-star cast he has at his disposal is not only clearly enjoying themselves immensely, but the script is witty, sharp, with more laugh-out-loud moments than you would otherwise expect from a whodunnit. It is also a not-remotely-subtle skewering of the US’ current attitude to immigration.
The focus of the film is the mystery surrounding the death of Harlan Thrombey, a celebrated crime novelist. But beyond that, it delivers a furiously acerbic critique of how white Americans across the political spectrum treat immigrants. Cuban actor Ana de Armas, last seen in Blade Runner 2049 and soon to be crossing paths with James Bond in No Time to Die, plays Harlan’s carer, Marta Cabrera. Can anyone in the family, supposedly very close to Christopher Plummer’s warm-hearted patriarch, name her country of origin? Er, no, as it turns out, despite their assurances to Marta that they’ll take care of her and her mother (who may have crossed into the US illegally).
This oversight could be forgiven if it weren’t for the vitriol spewed against immigrants by Riki Lindhome (spouting the choice phrase: “You always make it a race thing!”), backed up by the seemingly-reasonable-but-still-racist rhetoric (the “if they come here legally it’s fine” nonsense) espoused by Thrombey’s son-in-law as played by Don Johnson. Neither actor delivers anything less than a great performance – but in today’s society, they don’t have to work too hard to portray such characters. We need only look at the headlines and lengthy Twitter threads to see such views in the mainstream media, and it is refreshing to see the skewering of them writ so large by Johnson on the silver screen.
But it isn’t for a satire of US race relations that you should see this film – that’s just the cherry on top. The central mystery of Thrombey’s death and its ultimate resolution is so well-executed that the twists and turns along the way are a genuine surprise. As in every good crime story, they are telegraphed for those paying attention, but only those who spend their lives steeped in crime fiction would be able to guess the ultimate culprit from the beginning. It’s great fun watching the story unfold, the film taking its time and feeling neither rushed nor too slow.
Beyond this, audiences are treated to an excellent film of actors genuinely having fun on screen. Chris Evans delivers a charmingly nasty performance as a spoilt playboy and black sheep of the family Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale – the glee with which he tells his family to “Eat shit” is as palpable as it is infectious. We’re a long, long way from Captain America’s plea for better language in Avengers: Age of Ultron here. Ana de Arma’s character is truly sympathetic: not only do you care for her, but you care for her family and for the father figure she has lost in Harlan himself. Speaking as a millennial, it’s also fun to see two actors of my generation (both distressingly younger than me), Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell, play millennials on screen in a way that doesn’t feel patronizing. Their portrayals of the feuding cousins, a “liberal snowflake” and “alt-right troll” respectively, feel effortlessly easy – again, we know these people, we spend time online engaging or arguing with them – but without the characters coming off as weirdly out-of-touch.
Ultimately, Rian Johnson has created an excellent piece of cinema. It’s a film with great re-watch value, as much to see if you can spot the foreshadowing and telegraphing of the twists on repeat viewings as to enjoy the story itself. Stream or purchased Knives Out here.
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer
Release Date: September 7, 2019 (TIFF), November 27, 2019 (United States)
Run Time: 130 minutes