I’m fairly confident Rian Johnson considers himself a traditionalist, in defiance of any evidence to the contrary. Beginning with his first feature, Brick, Johnson settled into a mode of taking a well-worn, largely bygone subgenre and spinning it around until it was more delirious that children’s birthday party attendee who sipped too much from the adult beverages before taking their turn at Pin the Tail on the Donkey. But Johnson was ultimately no insurrectionist, which is why his films work so well. He’s instead an excited excavator, finding the ingenuity at the core of genre tropes and figuring out a way to make the familiar seem fresh again. There are plenty of filmmakers who obviously and grotesquely cloak themselves in self-praise over their snide deconstructions of the quaint. Johnson instead was to polish the antiques and make them gleam again.
To that end, Johnson has been insisting to any questioner with a recording device that Knives Out, his new whodunit, properly honors the work of Agatha Christie and other authors who specialized in assembling murder suspects in a lavish space to be assessed by a colorful figure with a brilliant deductive mind. The inclusion of pointed, modern class consciousness, Johnson notes, is exactly what Christie in her countless novels. That the most blithe, heartless members of the wealthy Thrombley family are spitting out Fox News talking points like poisonous gumballs places Knives Out in the here and now. Like Christie’s books, it can age into a period piece.
The predecessor in Johnson’s filmography that Knives Out most resembles is The Brothers Bloom, a work I truly adore. And like that tale of sibling conmen, the less offered about the plot the better. There’s a dead body, a fleet of unsavory relatives who had recently discovered their respective axes were in need of some time pressed against the grinder. The task of sussing out the progression of hidden event falls primarily to Benoit Blanc (played in a marvelously hammy manner by Daniel Craig), a southern detective so renowned he was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker. The cast that swirls around him is exceptional, each performer bringing such toothsome joy to their performances that it almost seems unkind to single out anyone. I will add only that Ana de Armas, playing the nurse of the family’s novelist patriarch, is called upon to some of the film’s heaviest dramatic lifting, and she proves herself more than capable of meeting the added challenge.
As he’s managed with all of his films — including the Star Wars installment that roused embarrassing consternation in stunted fanboys — Johnson shows precisely how a film can be funny, inventive, brisk, bright, and, above all else, fun. More than any other director currently working, Johnson’s approach is one of a jubilant compatriot, thrilled to share what he’s discovered in carrying a mental concoction all the way to a great big screen. Knives Out is a lot of things. It’s a piece of sly social commentary and a zippy mystery. It’s a cheeky thriller and a burnished comedy. There’s a simpler way to describe it, though. Knives Out is an absolute delight.