With sequel Glass Onion headed to Netflix, it’s time to take a look back to Rian Johnson’s old-fashioned whodunit that runs very much against the popular tide; such tried and tested entertainments are rarely in vogue. Exhuming Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile didn’t breathe much life into the Agatha Christie stakes, and drawing rooms, insurance policies and old-school detection are hardly the ingredients for box-office success. It’s surprising, then, that despite trailers that indicate a camp-as-Clue pastiche, Knives Out is an engrossing puzzle that constitutes that rarest of cinematic commodities, a good story well told.
With no real need for spoilers, Knives Out begins with a death, and immediately tips the audience off to the guilty party. It reverses the expectations of a whodunit, and leaves us guessing where the story will go next. Of course, there’s plenty of suspects who look guilty as sin when it comes to having motives against author Harlan Thronbey (Christopher Plummer); practically his entire family have their knives out for him, providing juicy roles for Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson. Meanwhile Thronbey’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) has her own secrets to hide, and there’s knowing cameos from Frank Oz and M Emmett Walsh to keep cineastes happy. And leading the way is Benoit Blanc, a detective played by Daniel Craig with a deft comic touch. It’s not been easy finding vehicles for an actor of Craig’s charisma, but Blanc makes an ideal focal point here, playing off his Bond image with an eccentric, slightly incompetent investigator.
Knives Out brings something fresh to the genre; the artwork of antique knives in the living room of Thronbey’s house matches up nicely with the broken spirals of shattered glass on Marta’s phone. There are wheels within wheels in the convoluted narrative, and red herrings often merge with the plot-points; there’s a charming conceit whereby clues are deliberately obscured right under the noses of the detectives, and a cheerful dog unknowingly retrieves items of potential value.
The clichés that Knives Out turns inside out have been dormant so long that younger audiences might not realise they exist; it’s hard to imagine the Joker generation being familiar with such musty enterprises as 1961’s What A Carve Up! But that’s exactly where Knives Out goes, and the fresh take on the country-house murder seemed to spark joy in amateur detectives worldwide. If nothing else, it sets up Benoit Blanc for a new franchise, as long as Craig stays interested in the character. On this evidence, that shouldn’t be a problem.