4 out of 5 stars.
On the surface, “Knives Out” looks like your typical murder mystery. But it only takes a few minutes for it to become apparent that this film is anything but. Both an affectionate homage and a twist on well-known tropes, “Knives Out,” written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a wildly entertaining ride with an important, contemporary message.
The bulk of “Knives Out” is set at Thrombey Manor, the home of renowned mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The night of his 85th birthday party, Harlan is found in his room with his throat slit. Initially believed to be suicide, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called in to investigate, and soon believes that his death was foul play. Harlan has a big, dysfunctional family, most of whom he fought with the night before—and all of whom had reason to get Harlan out of the picture.
“Knives Out” follows the grand tradition of movie mysteries with a large ensemble cast, and they all seem to be having a great time chewing on Johnson’s script, which provides ample opportunities for humor, drama, and general misbehaving. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Harlan’s tough-as-nails daughter Linda, a self-made woman who runs her own company with the help of her useless husband Richard (Don Johnson). Toni Collette is delightfully superficial as Joni, who was married to Harlan’s son until his death but continues to mooch off her father-in-law, particularly regarding getting money for her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) to go to school. Harlan’s other son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs his father’s publishing company, and is at odds with him over how they handle their properties. Walt’s teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), meanwhile, is an alt-right internet troll constantly on his phone. And then there’s Ransom (Chris Evans), Linda and Richard’s privileged son who left his grandfather’s party early on the night of his death. They’re an eclectic bunch, and it’s fun to see so many of these actors play against type (like Evans, whose character is unusually despicable).
Then there’s Marta (Ana de Armas), who is close to the family but not related by blood. The young woman is Harlan’s caretaker, as well as his close companion. The story ultimately pits Marta, an immigrant whose mother is still undocumented, against the other Thrombeys, a group of wealthy, selfish white people who don’t know the meaning of hard work. The theme of immigration and belonging is an unexpected one, but when it does come into this film, it makes perfect sense. It gives deeper, more satisfying meaning to a film that otherwise is just a fun mystery romp, and the final shot of the movie is one of the most profound I’ve seen in a while. Armas plays the only really “normal” character in the film filled with eccentrics, and she’s immediately endearing. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and thus makes the viewer worry for her and the situation she’s in.
Johnson has a lot of fun playing with typical mystery tropes in this movie—this is apparent from the opening sequence, when the housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), upon discovering Harlan’s corpse, doesn’t drop her tray of food and scream, as we’d expect, but quietly swears as she struggles to catch the coffee she almost spilled. It’s a smart and funny way to set the tone for a film that ends up being exactly that. Craig is delightful as Blanc, the detective with a deep Southern drawl who on the surface seems every bit the Poirot type, but is in some ways is also kind of a buffoon. We also get two contrasting police officers on the case, Lakeith Stanfield’s more serious Lieutenant Elliot, and Noah Segan’s Trooper Wagner, a Thrombey fanboy who’s just happy to be there. Thrombey Manor is a decadent setting, and Johnson takes the time to show the viewer all the strange objects and interesting details the house holds. The story takes several twists and turns early in the film, to the point where the endgame actually seems too predictable. But while aspects of the plot don’t come off as clever as they seem to think they are—and, admittedly, I was expecting more from the climax—the direction feels very purposeful; instead of taking the least predictable route, Johnson steers the story the other way.
It’s easy to see the influence that Agatha Christie’s stories have on “Knives Out,” but this film is more than a homage or a copycat. Johnson’s movie lures in the audience with its crowd-pleasing antics, but ultimately punches us in the gut with a message that he wants to make sure we all hear. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot of fun, and I think it’s the rare mystery that the audience will actually be able to gain more from in future viewings—even knowing how it ends.
Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.