“If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.
Craig is having fun here as “CSI KFC”, though, and he’s the most entertaining part of the picture, despite Johnson coming up short in providing really impressive investigative prowess, deductive speechifying or startling reveals. Johnson has, however, decided on a distinctive way into this whodunnit fiction. Albeit, I’m unconvinced it was necessarily the deftest choice when it comes to servicing a mystery narrative; the writer-director’s reach does rather tend to exceed his grasp when it comes to impressing upon us his ingenuity.
He opts to turn the mystery around, at least in part, by showing early on how Christopher Plummer’s victim, family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (a little too smugly meta as a famous mystery novelist), meets his end, and in so doing establishes the culpability, or lack thereof, of Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera, his trusted nurse. You know something else must be in the mix, so the smarts of Benoit, or lack thereof, are part and parcel of the piece’s unfolding.
Where Johnson shoots himself in the foot is that he never really convinces us that Benoit is formidable. Craig thinks he is, and makes him likably sure of himself and entirely unflappable, but he should be driving a degree of tension – certainly if Johnson is, as he claims, any kind of student of Christie – and for the most part, he doesn’t. Part of this is down to the way Johnson either avoids or fails to pay due diligence to the round of suspects. He can’t make the murder quite slippery enough, doesn’t spend sufficient time casting the net of suspects wider through further suspicions. Having shown the most salient facts early on, he doesn’t then offer enough sleights and twists and red herrings to justify that choice.
The children – Michael Shannon’s Walt, Toni Collette’s Joni and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Linda, along with various related parties including Don Johnson’s son-in-law Richard and Chris Evans’ vulgar grandson Ransom – are all scrupulously motivated, but because of the manner in which Johnson elects to play his game, following the initial round of interviews they’re largely relegated to background figures. When they do otherwise, namely in Evans’ case, it’s a signal of shutting down the potentials rather than broadening the canvas, pushing the proceedings more into a Joe Eszterhas direction than a Christie one. Which only serves to emphasise that Benoit isn’t a detective to marvel at – it’s even down to Marta that Ransom’s confession is secured.
And I think it’s here that Johnson most trips himself up. He has said “I think any time you sit down to write something you better have something on your mind, something that you’re, for lack of a better way of saying, a little angry about” which tells you all you need to know about why The Last Jedi received the backlash it did, and why Johnson’s sensibility might not have been the best one to call on unexpurgated, all things considered (but hey, given his preceding filmography, I wouldn’t have twigged that was making him tick, so go figure). I bet Johnson would claim, in addition to his other claims about her, that if Christie were writing today, she too would have something, for lack of a better way of saying, to be a little angry about.
I don’t think he’s especially angry about Jaeden Martell’s “alt-right troll dipshit” grandson Jacob (who is, despite Johnson’s pathological disingenuousness when pressed on the subject, clearly a response to his “incel” critics). That’s just an incidental swipe. He’s clearly exercised by all things Trumpian, however, in particular immigration and attitudes thereto, whereby you’d have to be wearing blinkers to miss it as a message.
When this is germane to the telling, it’s effective, but Johnson can’t resist the oversell. So there’s the portrayal of the spoiled, privileged, elite family, where even those who aren’t pro-Trump are inherently ugly inside and treat Marta like a skivvy. A skivvy who comes from, variously, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil, depending on which Thrombey you ask (Johnson’s sense of humour, despite his evident earnestness of message, appears not to have gone down well with some critics). Which is congruent, to a greater or less extent, with the canvas Johnson is weaving, meshing to the family’s indignance that Marta should be granted Harlan’s entire fortune, house, the whole kit and caboodle.
The problem comes from Johnson’s decision that Marta is purer than the driven snow, not just to the extent of revealing early in the proceedings – in what is surely a fundamental no-no to the good mystery writer and therefore evidence that Johnson is only paying lip service to his Christie adoration – that she is not the perpetrator, but also in a central, ludicrous character device that is played both for laughs and as a deductive tool. Marta is subject to “a regurgitative reaction to mistruth” meaning she pukes if she’s forced to lie about anything.
Now, I’m doubtful even Johnson would claim that, if Christie were alive today, she’d have her suspects throwing up all over each other, Poirot solving his cases knee deep in vomit, but who knows what he’s capable of. It’s not only a crude device, used for crude effect – if you’re twelve, eliciting a confession by rolfing over the antagonist is probably the best thing ever. If you’re twelve – but it’s a cheap shot that illustrates all Johnson really thinks of Marta is as a doe-eyed cypher, a holier than holy avatar, rather than as a person in her own right. After all, the opposite to someone, an immigrant, who cannot deceive, is a compulsive liar… like the wall-building patriot in the White House? Which means Johnson is effectively using the entire character as a cheap shot.
That’s unfortunate in many respects. It means Johnson is doubling down on the things he didn’t handle so well in The Last Jedi. It means de Armas – who is really good, so much so, she manages to mask her screenwriter’s deficiencies for much of the time – is rudely short-changed. Most of all, it means, in Johnson’s attempts to make a statement, he undermines his narrative. The twist that Ransom tried to off grandpa is rock solid, but Johnson fundamentally doesn’t understand the idea of using subtext or underlying theme to support the story. It’s foregrounding or nothing for him. Like Evans, his blunder leaves him under a sea of chunder.
He has cast his movie beautifully, though, and crucially, he’s a fine director on top of that. Lakeith Stanfield isn’t especially well used, even if he does point out “the dumbest car chase of all time”, but Frank Oz is perfect in a cameo as Harlan’s lawyer. And it’s nice to see M Emmet Walsh (I’ll be totally honest and admit I wasn’t even sure he was still with us). Evans is a lot of fun (although all his best bits are in the trailers). Most of everyone else leaves you wanting more, though.
Generally, I get less and less convinced of Johnson as time wears on. He never quite sticks the landing. I thought Brick was pretty much a perfect pastiche – I probably shouldn’t revisit it – but his skill as a director is increasingly undermined by his unevenness as a writer (the biggest problem among the current generation of prolific writer-directors tends to be the writer part). Knives Out might have been a classic murder mystery if he didn’t keep getting in his own way.