The whodunnit may be an all-but-vanished American film genre, but Rian Johnson’s sensationally entertaining Knives Out serves as an affectionate revival. An exceedingly clever, highly skilled exercise in, well, fun, it would take a real grinch to poo-poo it. And why would anyone want to? Just try to resist.
A latter-day Agatha Christie jaunt with a dose of Trumpian sociopolitical commentary, it’s a movie with a breakneck pace, a dozen or so star tuns, a delightfully plotted mystery and the whipsmart humor of a classic farce. It plays by the vintage rules of its Clue-like game with a few updated twists. What’s not to love?
Christopher Plummer is literary giant Harlan Thrombey, premiere mystery novelist and the imposing patriarch of an extended clan of opportunistic vultures, a rogue’s gallery living off his fortune. Picture opens with the family invited to his secluded manor for his 85th birthday celebration, after which he promptly retires, literally, and is discovered the following morning, throat slashed.
The party guests and suspects include Harlan’s eldest daughter, real estate magnate Linda (an acerbic Jamie Lee Curtis, refreshing to see outside of the Halloween franchise) and her far right, philandering husband (Don Johnson); son Walt (Michael Shannon), who oversees Harlan’s all but self-running publishing business but whose job may be on the block; former daughter-in-law and hanger on Joni (Toni Collette), an influencer and lifestyle coach whose own lifestyle (and her daughter’s education) is funded by Harlan’s influence (read: pocketbook); and ne’er do well grandson Ransom (a smirking, very funny Chris Evans), who knows how to wear a cable knit sweater, and who may have had a vociferous falling out with his granddad. So, whodunnit?
For the family, worried about the will and under investigation, there’s little time (and even less inclination) to mourn. But Thrombey’s loyal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who discovered his corpse and was closer to him than any blood relative, grieves the loss of her friend. Marta, an Ecuadorian immigrant who lives in a small apartment with her sister and their undocumented mother, is about the only party not under suspicion. But does she know more than she’s letting on?
The investigation is led by a pair of by-the-book local cops (Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan) and a celebrity sleuth, one Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose suave demeanor was recently profiled in The New Yorker and who develops an unlikely bond with Marta, who has a little habit of vomiting each time she tells a lie—a gag the movie uses to great effect more than once—and whose truth barometer Blanc believes may hold the key to the mystery. No one seems to know who exactly hired Blanc, and everyone is interviewed, and unnerved.
Knives Out moves at a clip, a joke a minute and clever references to Hamilton, Baby Driver and other cultural touchpoints give the vintage mystery structure a new coat of paint. Director Johnson, working from his own furiously funny screenplay mounts a handsome, confidently plotted and surprising picture in which we never quite know who did what to whom, and why, until the final analysis. This is pure, unadulterated and expertly made entertainment. Johnson, whose 2005 debut Brick knew its way around a novel mystery and whose twisty, time-shifting sci-fi thriller Looper remains criminally underrated, is one of the best movie tacticians working today.
Johnson’s depiction of Marta as an immigrant, have-not co-mingling with a group of vulgar capitalist greed mongers hands us the picture’s real story, a scathing attack on the 1%, depicted here as a hateful exploitation class (not unlike Parasite’s upstairs/downstairs caste set inside a similarly extravagant abode) of pandering money grubbers who quickly descend into ideological stone throwing and all manner of manipulative warfare once the immigrant in their midst (whom they want to “take care of”) gains control of the game. There’s a running joke about Marta’s home country, which the family keeps confusing (Uruguay, Brazil, etc.), but Johnson’s point about inept, condescending imperialism is clear and salient.
And then there’s the all-important mansion, a feat of art direction so critical to its genre and a puzzle box of secret windows, burnished oak bannisters, lavishly appointed studies, classically furnished drawing rooms and an out-of-time formal elegance that left this viewer agog, longing for a weekend getaway visit.
The picture runs on two performances which pull off a neat trick—one is pure, wily artifice and wink-wink fun that walks a high-wire of absurdity in every scene; the other, a piece of unfettered naturalism, or “straight man” realism. Flamboyantly accented Daniel Craig, lampooning both Hercule Poirot and Colonel Sanders in his send up of a southern fried gentleman sleuth, is marvelous fun, freed from his Bond posture and clearly enjoying a bit of knowing play-acting. Just wait until you hear him explain a metaphorical donut hole as the key to unlocking the mystery. And de Armas manages real substance and pathos, direct and sincere, stealing the film from its higher-profile cast by creating a person grounded in reality and values, and one we want to succeed; her final moment is a doozy.
Knives Out is superb, smart entertainment.