The influence of The Last of Sheila was evident in Knives Out – this extends the homage with a cameo from Stephen Sondheim as himself (great detective Benoit Blanc’s zoom pals in lockdown are Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ad Natasha Lyonne) while the plot is a Sheila variation in which billionaire tech guy Miles Bron (Edward Norton) holds a murder mystery game on his Greek island with a collection of guests who are at once his closest friends/business partners and all have motives to kill him. Blanc (Daniel Craig) leaps at the invitation to come along, though it turns out that he’s received a false invite – and amusingly solves the mock murder (devised by Gillian Flynn) even before it’s taken place, which gives him more time to deal with the real killing (of one of Miles’ guests, but with the strong possibility that the poisoned drink was intended for the host and – if you’re paying attention – the stronger possibility that it’s a double bluff and the corpse was exactly who the killer wanted to kill).
To be fair, this is also Death on the Nile to Knives Out’s Murder on the Orient Express – a return but with more humour, better weather, and a lot more clues than plot. It’s a slightly broader satire than the earlier film, with Bron – who must have been written before Elon Musk proved Blanc’s insight that it’s possible to be a world-changing ‘disruptor’ and a complete blundering idiot – a scrambling of several real-life rich asshole characters … the sort of guy who’s bullied the French government into loaning him the Mona Lisa to decorate his glass onion Bond villain lair and hired Banksy to create an ice sculpture jetty which is only useful at high tide. The intricate relationships of this gang are plot meat but also set up various obnoxious parody rich folk – celeb Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) is about to be cancelled because she is so dim she presumed a sweatshop was name for a factory where sweatpants are made … politico Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) is running on a green ticket but been pushed into backing a possibly unsafe new energy source that’s likely to turn homes into the Hindenburg … scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr) has had to make Miles’ crackpot ideas, faxed to him in the middle of the night, work … and men’s rights loon Duke (Dave Bautista), who’s henpecked by his own mother (Jackie Hoffman), has barely survived a rhino horn boner pill scandal and wants a slot on Miles’ new cable news network.
The butler never does it, of course, but we might suspect Birdie’s PA (Jessica Henwick), Duke’s trophy GF (Madelyn Cline) or the Dude-like slacker (Noah Segan) Miles keeps telling people to ignore. Also on the guest list is Andi Brand (Janelle Monae), Miles’ ex-business partner and perhaps the ideas woman he’s leeched off before forcing her out of the company with the help of the four prime dickwads … though we note that her hairstyle and look is different when she turns up on the boat to the island, after being given a permanent covid cure by an efficient man (Ethan Hawke), than it was when she was the only one to take an Alexandrine approach to the puzzle box invite in the prologue.
It’s full of guest shots – Serena Williams, Yo-Yo Ma, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hugh Grant – and namedrops – Jeremy Renner, Jared Leto – most of which are waspishly insider jokes that happen also to be funny (another Sheila trait). Writer-director Rian Johnson assembles the plot pieces with even more ingenuity this time round, but it may be that like those puzzle boxes there’s an issue with things being so complex that it’s a tad of a let-down that the ultimate reveal of the culprit is a little on the obvious side, as if guilt were assigned for political rather than plot reasons. It also does a bit of doubling back during the traditional detective-explains-what-really-happened set-piece as we go through the whole second act again from a different POV with exquisite dovetailing.
Craig’s Benoit Blanc is here an outsider, and almost a rube among the super-rich … which gives him another register to play, with Craig almost going for a Clouseau-style human cartoon (peeping out from behind a tree) when not delivering monologues in his peculiar but charming accent (also Clouseau-like?). I should say that my main takeaway from the film is that it’s enormously pleasurable – maybe self-regarding in a Wes Anderson way (I like his films too) but made by people laughing at their own slyness in an infectious manner.