The Thrombey family is gathered at their rural compound when a murder most foul takes place. Who is the guilty party? And will they get away with it? Director Rian Johnson’s new film assembles an all star cast including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette and Ana de Armas to investigate. This movie is outrageously enjoyable, but it has sharp edges, too.
The phrase “something for everyone” is tossed off fairly lightly these days.
Nandos has “something for everyone”. The Santa Clarita Valley was described only this week as possessing “something for everyone”. I’m almost certain I’ve heard the Christmas romcom offering from Netflix described as having “something for everyone”, when it would be more accurate to describe movies like A Knight Before Christmas as being only a few things for a very specific set of people.
And yet I must beg your forgiveness, because Knives Out, the new murder mystery from Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson has, indeed, something for everyone.
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Agatha Christie fans will love Johnson’s script, which is densely but cleverly plotted. Bestselling crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead, and his entire family gathered at their creepy rural compound are suspects. That includes his moneyed, sticky-fingered children Walt (Michael Shannon), Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Linda’s altogether too charming husband Richard (Don Johnson), as well as Thrombey’s other daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette). Also present is the next generation: prodigal grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), feminist teen with a penchant for vapes Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell), too online for his own good. Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombey’s kindhearted nurse, rounds out the party. Who’s that knocking at the door? Oh, it’s Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the “last of the gentleman sleuths” – tweed jacket and cigar decidedly not optional – here to ferret out the killer.
Something for everyone? That cast is everything in perpetuity.
James Bond fans? Watch Craig as a whiskey-smooth-talkin’ private investigator drafted in to find the murderer of – Sound Of Music lovers, assemble – Plummer’s Harlan Thrombey. Superhero fans? Come catch a glimpse of Evans, Captain America himself, in a cream cable knit sweater telling his co-stars to “eat shit” with barely contained relish. The teens are here for 13 Reasons Why’s Langford and Get Out’s LaKeith Stanfield, who stars as a deceptively placid police investigator. The Hollywood purists will come for Curtis, Johnson and Shannon, sparring as Thrombey’s various offspring.
I am also legally obliged to mention Collette, whose Joni spends most of the film squandering the family fortune courtesy of her lifestyle business Flam, a company established to purvey goods that speak to “the nugget of self-care and human need”. Her performance, 99% eye rolls and hair flips, will leave Gwyneth Paltrow shaking over her green juice and quinoa. I would say Collette was the movie’s MVP, but I could no sooner choose a favourite performance than I could a favourite chocolate bar. Every actor in this film is having the time of their lives, getting their hands dirty in this impeccably crafted sandbox. (OK fine, Collette’s the MVP. And Galaxy Ripple.)
Knives Out is a whodunnit of the traditional, garrulous form, which is to say that you both know what you’re in for here and anything goes. Johnson has stuffed the plot with more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, the red herrings so gosh darn red they might as well be wearing a MAGA hat.
Which leads to me the biggest surprise at the heart of Knives Out: that the knife has a deceptively sharp edge. This film is ostensibly about a vicious murder – Thrombey is found dead in his study with his throat slit – but that murder raises all sorts of questions and possibilities, especially when it comes to Thombrey’s hundred million dollar fortune and his contested will. And there they are, Thrombey’s family, circling like vultures all vying for their slice of the pie.
They’re careless people, these Thrombeys, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby were before them. There’s a rich anti-capitalist vein running through this film, a criticism of the kind of wealth that comes from stepping on top of other people to get your hands on it. The Thrombeys are, to put a very fine point on it, a bunch of snivelling, weaseling liars. Richard is lying to Linda, Linda is bitching about Joni, Joni is stealing from everyone and Walt isn’t bright enough to do anything other than whine.
F Scott Fitzgerald put it best in The Great Gatsby: “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
In Knives Out, those ‘other people’ include Marta and Fran (Edi Patterson) – “the help”, as Ransom calls them. Both Marta and Fran are largely ignored by the family until it becomes impossible not to. Nobody in the family even knows where Marta’s family emigrated to the US from. Richard, Walt and Ransom all list her as hailing from either Ecuador, Paraguay or Brazil. “Immigrants, we get the job done,” as Richard puts it, stealing the line from Hamilton.
Only Marta comes out of this movie with any shred of dignity. While the Thrombeys are too busy sharpening the knives to stab into each other’s backs, Marta is solving the murder, protecting her family and getting the job done. It’s a star is born performance from de Armas, who you might remember from Blade Runner 2049 but who is about to be everywhere in 2020, starring as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde and reuniting with Craig in the next James Bond film No Time To Die.
The Thrombeys are desperate, reckless people, for whom good fortune has curdled into carelessness. Marta, on the other hand, is good and kind and true. And it’s kind people, Benoit tells her at one point, that will inherit the world. Or, at the very least, Thrombey’s fortune.
Knives Out is some of the most fun you’ll have in a cinema this year, and it’s worth buying a ticket for that fact alone. Evans is skin-crawlingly smarmy, Curtis all withering glares and colour-blocked pantsuits and Craig is doing an accent so hammy I want to slice it up and eat it in a sandwich. (What do you love? To see it.) But there’s something more beneath the surface of this film, too, a message that money really, truly can’t buy happiness. Something for almost everyone, then.
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.