Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas
Like the Western, the murder mystery is one of those genres that seemed doomed to obsolescence. As Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 retread of the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express demonstrated, we don’t necessarily go to these movies to be surprised anymore; we come to see an ensemble of A-list stars and buzzy up-and-comers gather together to indulge in the quaint notion that justice can be served with a shrewd deduction and a witty turn of phrase. Enter writer-director Rian Johnson who, with his latest, Knives Out, aims to do for the whodunit what his Star Wars: The Last Jedi did for the increasingly elaborate but also progressively derivative space opera: shake the genre to its foundations and make it relevant again.
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Standing in for Hercule Poirot is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a detective with an outsized Louisiana accent and an appealing mix of acumen and cluelessness, who is hired by an anonymous client after a wealthy mystery novelist—how’s that for meta?—named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is discovered dead after his 85th birthday. Riding shotgun on a perfunctory police inquiry (led by LaKeith Stanfield’s Lieutenant Elliott, the token black man in the ensemble), Blanc is introduced to Harlan’s dysfunctional kin, all with a motive to off the patriarch. Harlan’s family is a starry lineup of suspects: Chris Evans’ prodigal grandson Ransom, his squabbling parents Linda and Richard (Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), his single-mother aunt Joni (Toni Collette), and his vaguely threatening uncle Walt (Michael Shannon). And to sweeten the pot there are turns from younger generation actors like 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford and It’s Jaeden Martell, as well as exciting performers like Ana de Armas, playing a nurse with a lot to hide.
One of the pleasures of the murder mystery is seeing how smoothly its ensemble works together or what kinds of sparks they generate when they collide with one another. Johnson’s script helps matters along by providing his actors with real humanity, even when the story demands that they act like comic stereotypes. More importantly, Johnson manages to sneak in moments of topicality by playing Armas’ immigrant caregiver Marta against the family’s white privilege. A notable sequence has the family debating the problem of illegal immigration to the chagrin of an increasingly discomfited Marta, and when smug Richard delivers the phrase “America is for Americans,” it has the same portentous effect as discovering the murder weapon.
Topicality and humanity are vital ingredients to Knives Out’s delicious brew, but its secret sauce is clearly its story. Just when the movie lulls you with its expected rhythms, it switches up the game midway through, seemingly giving up all its secrets. And from then on, it’s one twist after another as Johnson nimbly demonstrates what makes him a talent to watch out for: His love for genre movies is obvious, and loving something means knowing it deeply enough to know when to pay tribute to it…and knowing when to subvert it. Knives Out is equally adoring and subversive, and Agatha Christie should be smiling up in murder mystery heaven.
Photographs from MRC II Distribution Company L.P.