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It’s interesting the upstate mansion has become a symbol of prejudice in the cinema of Trump’s America. Opposition to the “elites” was a rallying cry of the man’s incendiary presidential run. Yet it’s the not-so-humble abodes of the upper crust which are utilised to expose the myth of a “post-racial” society. Jordan Peele’s Get Out made use of seemingly, well-meaning liberals and a contemporary plantation home to skewer pervasive white attitudes about African Americans. Rian Johnson’s rip-roaring murder-mystery Knives Out is set in a stately house as it takes to task the xenophobia of an American hegemony in fear of the other.
This is perhaps the most surprising element of one of the best times at the movies in 2019. The most shocking aspect of Knives Out is not found in its winding plot or in a late-act twist but rather in its politics. Johnson’s whodunnit is not afraid to persecute a status quo – one propped by both liberals and conservatives – which is secretly pleased with the abhorrent nativism of the modern age.
Following his 85th birthday party, the uber-wealthy crime novelist and family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his bedroom. His throat slashed in an apparent suicide. Not so surprisingly, it does not take long for suspicion of foul play to fill the air. Daniel Craig plays Benoit Blanc, a private detective with an outlandish brogue plucked straight from the American Bayou. Blanc is hired by a mysterious patron to assist the police in the investigation.
As for suspects, there are plenty, and most have a familial connection to the victim. There’s the weak-willed son at risk of losing control of a publishing company (Michael Shannon), the much more strong-minded, abrasive grandson fearing the loss of an inheritance (Chris Evans) and a son-in-law desperate to keep his infidelity a secret (Don Johnson). Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield and Toni Collette also round out a cast with enough stars to fill a constellation.
Most attention is paid to Marta (Ana de Armas), the good-hearted Latinx nurse who had formed a close relationship with Harlan after taking care of him for years. Rian Johnson’s decision to make an immigrant of colour the centre of a story consisting of a nearly all-white cast is pointed. Marta is consistently referred to as ‘one of the family’ but there’s always a sneering sense of disingenuousness about the words. One running gag involves each character claiming she’s from a different Latin American country when asked. The math also doesn’t work out on her being told by family members they were “out-voted” in a ballot concerning her funeral attendance.
The Thrombeys are yet another entitled family brought down by moneyed interests and frets over endowments. Think Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections by way of Arthur Conan Doyle. Due to a variety of plot elements, the Thrombeys can only see duplicity in Marta’s actions and the seeds of mistrust begin to grow. Rian Johnson uses this growing division as clever commentary on overblown fears about the “great replacement” present today among the American ruling class. Knives Out’s pitch-perfect, penultimate shot speaks volumes to this effect.
Knives Out’s Agatha Christie credentials should not be in doubt. There’s the eccentric investigator with a peculiar accent, well-to-do suspects, a complicated murder plot involving a large estate and it can all get just a little ridiculous. Johnson has a knack for marrying antiquated genre staples with contemporary flourishes. He’s self-aware about this fact too, with references to alt-right trolls and SJWs being lost on the middle-aged Walt (Shannon). There are some clunkers (“CSI: KFC”) but for the most part the script crackles with fresh ideas and the kind of interplay seen in great theatre.
Everyone here is having a ball. No more so than Craig, who relishes the opportunity. Notoriously sick of playing Bond in his sleep, the actor plays Blanc with a McConaughey drawl and a dumbfounded charisma. Some may balk at his overdone accent, but there is no denying the simple pleasure found in the Yankee-tinged pronunciation of “dough-nut”. The supporting players do well against type: Captain America the arrogant bastard, Don Johnson a latter-day revelation as the weedy husband.
The actual murder-mystery itself might just be the weakest link. In rapid-fire fashion, Johnson throws reveals at you before you have a chance to digest – or really think about – any of it. Like removing a table cloth so fast that the plates and glasses stay intact, his hope is that speed of delivery will be such that our sense of disbelief will remain suspended. He mostly gets away with it. It’s still a stronger third act than Murder on the Orient Express. This is a film about the journey, and not the destination. And what a ride.