Johnson’s new murder mystery Knives Out doesn’t match the wistful poetry of that first film – but it’s his most polished work yet, irresistible as sheer showmanship. Like Brick, it’s a murder-mystery pastiche: the model here is the Agatha Christie whodunnit, updated to the present-day US with all the essential features of the form retained.
On the night of his 85th birthday, mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found with his throat slit in the attic where he pumped out his bestselling books. Suicide, it would appear – but then again, it’s evident that various family members who have lived off his wealth might have something to gain from his demise.
The well-cast line-up of suspects includes Harlan’s snooty older daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), her feeble brother (Michael Shannon), their Instagram-famous sister-in-law (Toni Collette) and the family’s smirking “black sheep” (Chris Evans, free at last from the strain of playing the noble Captain America).
Sounds like a job for Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a honey-baked ham in a tweed coat, described by the New Yorker as “the last of the gentlemen sleuths”. The name suggests a tribute to legendary Warner Brothers cartoon voice artist Mel Blanc, and Craig goes over-the-top with amusing results –though we might regret that the showboating detective on the scene isn’t Lakeith Stanfield, largely confined to registering various shades of bemusement as a local cop.
As a feat of narrative gymnastics, Knives Out sets the bar very high. Johnson has to shift fluidly between past and present, juggle multiple perspectives, and scatter clues and red herrings, while ensuring that we’re never bored by the endless exposition, and that the story, as it comes together, has some thematic and emotional resonance.
Crucial to keeping us engaged is the outsider figure of Harlan’s Latina carer Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who is literally allergic to falsehood: she can’t tell a lie without vomiting straight after. This handy device is typical of Johnson’s ingeniously fanciful plotting – though even here we can’t be sure he’s playing with all his cards face up.
Reviewing Knives Out presents more than the usual challenges: it would be giving too much away to reveal which actors move to the foreground and which are underused, let alone which narrative possibilities are fully exploited and which set aside.
Is Harlan’s ancient, nearly silent mother (K Callan) as out-of-it as she seems? How closely should we be watching the guard dogs? What do we make of the ideological battle between Harlan’s two youngest grandchildren, a “social justice warrior” (Katherine Langford) and a scowling alt-right acolyte (Jaeden Martell)?
Some things can be said without risking spoilers. Johnson’s fancy style remains as appealing as ever, though his signature stylistic moves – the rapid pans, the close-ups from low angles, the tricks with focus – are by now as recognisable as the line of a cartoonist.
As for the broader implications, there are parallels with the recent horror-comedy Ready or Not, which likewise concerns a wealthy family with some dark secrets. The difference is that the wealth of the Thrombeys is recently acquired, stemming solely from Harlan’s writing; thus they don’t exactly represent the US establishment, though the film could fairly be seen as an allegory for the changing of the guard in Hollywood.
Knives Out is much more extravagantly clever than Ready or Not, but also a relatively sentimental tale, in which the promise of nastiness held out in the title isn’t entirely kept. As Johnson himself has said, the whodunnit is a genre meant to reassure – and part of the enjoyment of this extremely enjoyable film is in seeing him stick to the rules, in his own way.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.