It ain’t always fun, the movies. Amongst this year’s least-fun pictures we probably have the likes of Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, Dark Phoenix and Gemini Man, all of which share in common a clear prioritization of special effects over storytelling. They’re also united in the fact that production was rocky in every instance, be it years of limbo or last-minute hackjobs in the editing bay, though that’s not necessarily synonymous with a bad film. Production on one of this year’s best, The Lighthouse, was described by its own director as “tense” and “cold”. No fun to be had in making that movie. Only in watching it.
In a pre-recorded clip before the New England premiere of Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson — whilst thanking us for seeing the film and imploring us not to spoil it — said flat out that making it was “a blast.” It’s not hard to believe, and evident from the film’s very first scenes: everyone in front of the camera (Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and a million others) breezes through having the time of their lives. And Johnson, too, exudes a confidence here as both a writer and a director that can only be borne of exciting material in the hands of a craftsman coming into his prime.
And for the most part, Knives not only survives on that zippy mentality but thrives on it. The classic murder-mystery setup is suitably convoluted, but the film’s energy doesn’t derive from that so much as from the themes running beneath the surface and the stylish deployment of character and plot. In Gosford Park, for instance, we’re enthralled anew by the dime-a-dozen whodunnit because of the knit ball of duplicity, red herrings, double-crosses, and lingering shots of things that you can bet will be important later. Knives doesn’t have half that number of balls in the air, but it makes the ol’ Agatha Christie yarn fresh in other ways.
The ensemble, again, is the most apparent. Daniel Craig turns in a performance where he’s actually enjoying himself for what might be the second time ever, following his turn in Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. Chris Evans plays decidedly against type, exchanging Captain America’s winning smile for a bombastic shit-eating grin. And Ana de Armas steals the show as Marta, Brazilian (or Uruguayan?) caretaker for Christopher Plummer’s aging celebrity novelist; who’d have thought the two of them would have such great chemistry? Heck, M. Emmet Walsh is even here!
Thematically, though, Knives Out works wonders by setting this ensemble loose in today’s America. There’s nothing in the film that prevents it from being set in Agatha Christie’s pre-modern era, short of a BMW and a toxicology report. But the resonance of the rich white family and their Panamanian (or Paraguayan?) live-in nurse wouldn’t pack the same punch if it weren’t explicitly set in today’s U.S., and Johnson’s lean into that is far more surprising than any murderer’s reveal. If anything, a harder lean might just have nudged Knives into a higher echelon altogether.
And that’s where things get a bit complicated, as Johnson’s aim here is likely not commentary on the immigration debate but rather, as explicitly mentioned, to just have a blast. He’s made a Star Wars movie and a time travel thriller and a con artist caper, but Knives is notably Johnson’s second time at the Whodunnit Well after his crackling debut feature Brick. He’s swapped out murder mystery L.A. noir for murder mystery dinner theatre, but the general plot thrust is similar enough to warrant comparison. And in comparing the two, notwithstanding Johnson’s maturity as a filmmaker, Brick has a very different kind of energy that isn’t reliant on impressive ensembles or timely thematic undercurrents. Despite those being the clear strengths of Knives Out, the raw and scrappy nature of Brick might make Johnson’s debut the more powerful of the two.
But maybe that’s comparing apples to oranges after all, and in any case it speaks to Johnson’s filmmaking that two whodunnits from the same director could claim completely separate strengths. Knives Out is a romp with heart, and an exciting bottle rocket from the guy who just made a space epic in the biggest franchise of all time. It ain’t always fun, the movies — but Knives Out, on both sides of the camera, sure as hell is.