Despite confirming my suspicion that Rian Johnson is a mediocre auteur who should really hire a writer, this is infinitely more enjoyable than his subsequent efforts. Perhaps that’s because a film based on ideas and action-thriller editing ensures we’re never dwelling on the fundamentals of the script for very long. Even then, the plotting is both overstuffed – telekinesis, time-travelling hitmen, the would you kill the Hitler child problem, alternate pasts, to name a few of the concepts it crams; and underdeveloped – plot points get rattled through or introduced on a whim, key devices they rest on get lampshaded, something it never convincingly gets away with. But for all those problems, I was still hooked from the start. It grabs your attention like all good thrillers should – including a gruesomely original torture sequence – and rides out its weaker moments to a far neater resolution than it let on. If Johnson could stick to making potboilers, as opposed to the brand of plodding TV-drama he’s fast making his own, cinema would be all the better for it.
The first warning sign this ostensible murder-mystery wasn’t going to succeed as you’d hoped (if not necessarily expected) came early. I like Daniel Craig – an actor with commendable presence if not commendable range. But the moment he opens his mouth to produce a dubious Southern accent that’s going to pervade the entire film, you know the direction is lacking the authoritative guile any project with higher aspirations demands. Which brings me to its crippling handicap. Rian Johnson had already served up a massive franchise turd with Star Wars: The Last Jedi – a film so insipidly directed and excruciatingly written you couldn’t believe he’d been given the gig. But I’m always inclined to give the benefit of doubt – corporate tentpoles have so many guidelines, so many mitigating factors, that judging a filmmaker solely on those terms would be doing them a disservice. On to save the day comes Knives Out – a low budget, star-studded genre piece with an independent sensibility. A chance then for the auteur to really show us their creative prowess. You think?
What initially promises to be an arch genre deconstruction dissipates into melodrama of the soppiest disposition, something no amount of lampshading can obfuscate. Johnson has no discernible flare – instead of cranking scenes up they flatten out. His style is televisual. And I wish I could say the same about his writing. Lesser artistes crowbar their ideas into frame in the most obvious syntax because they simply don’t have the capacity to do so any differently. Jarring attempts to sound contemporary (netflix! influencers!) are clumsy, secondary-school debating seminars about political issues (I’ve had more stirring conferences in beer-gardens) are wince-inducing, and beating your audience around the head with a woefully on-the-nose coda is completely inexcusable. To clarify, his politics are not my problem. A TV director and sub-TV writer making movies, let’s start there.