The backlash that followed the release of 2018’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi may have annoyed, even broken, a less strong-willed and talented director given the lashings of abuse and tirades of negativity bestowed upon him post-release. But not Rian Johnson. He’s too good to be bullied in such a way and continued on as if nothing had even happened, spoke with dignity on social media and held his head high after producing, in this avid writer’s opinion, the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. Anyhow, Johnson is back from a galaxy far, far away and he’s produced another real beauty.
Boston, Massachusetts and the palatial home of renowned author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Celebrating his 85th birthday with a lavish party and exuberant celebration, the real action is happening behind closed doors with the ever-increasing family fractions over his empire’s future causing much chagrin. That night, Harlan’s body is discovered in his bedroom, an apparent suicide the cause of death surmised by the cops (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) assigned in the days that follow but the appearance of mysterious detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to the house changes everything – and the game, as they say, is afoot.
It would be easy to categorise Johnson’s latest as a hark back to such classic sleuth mystery’s from Murder on the Orient Express to The Maltese Falcon, from Poirot to Sherlock Holmes but this is more of a celebration of all of the classic detectives, even the most fallable of ones. Echoes of Inspector Clouseau and even Austin Powers ring throughout the film, and Daniel Craig’s performance (via vocal nodes of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood), but the film has a lighter, more jovial touch in line with the underrated Deathtrap or Clue than many will be expecting. But it does stick its knives in (ahem) into modern society’s obsession with money for nothing, earning everything by doing very little as well subtly plunging into the worldwide dissociations with the rich and poor – everyone gets more of what they have – and how money corrupts if put in the wrong hands. Indeed, there’s melodies that could even be Johnson having a subtle jab at social media and feverish fan culture, adding even more sharpness to his blades.
There’s a serious murder mystery at the centre of the film, of course, and Johnson layers in much dark human emotions, all boiled together to produce a unique and utterly intoxicating film. With some striking cinematography and editing by Johnson’s usual team of Steve Yedlin and Bob Ducsay, there’s intrigue and machinations aplenty – and some red herrings – to keep everything as spiky and forceful as the knives that surround Harlan’s throne.
He’s blessed, too, with a plethora of top-notch acting talent who are all revelling in both the environment and Johnson’s epigrammatic dialogue, with each and everyone delivering superb performances. Much focus will be on Craig and Chris Evans, for obvious reasons, and freed from their other lives of saving the world, they bask in the different notes afforded to them. Further afield, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette and Plummer continue their infallible recent turns while Katherine Langford and Harden Martell add a sharp 21st-century twinge. But the star is undoubtedly Ana de Armas who is quickly breaking out to become a real force. She’s asked to carry a lot here, and is truly astounding throughout in a star-making turn, and if she can carry this kind of performance playing Marilyn Monroe in next year’s Blonde, we’re in for something special, just like this banger.
Crime, Comedy | USA, 2019 | 12A | 27th November 2019 (UK Cinema)| Lionsgate UK | Dir.Rian Johnson | Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette
Originally posted as part of our 2019 BFI London Film Festival Coverage | 10th October 2019