Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” unravels not only a good old-fashioned murder mystery but also the very fabric of the whodunit, pulling at loose threads until it has intricately, devilishly woven together something new and exceedingly delightful.
For all the detective tales that dot television screens, the Agatha Christie-styled whodunit has gone curiously absent from movie theaters. The nostalgia-driven “Murder on Orient Express” (2017), popular as it was, didn’t do much to dispel the idea that the genre has essentially moved into retirement.
When done well, there is almost nothing better than a whodunit. And “Knives Out,” while it takes a little while to find its stride, sticks the landing, right up to its doozy of a last shot. The whodunit turns out not only to still have a few moves left but also to be downright acrobatic.
The film begins like many before it: with a dead body that needs accounting for. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a best-selling mystery writer, is found with his throat cut in a small upstairs room in his sprawling Victorian mansion.
Thrombey is extremely wealthy with an expansive family of spoon-fed, entitled eccentrics. And as much intrigue as there is about Harlan’s death, for his children there’s even more about his inheritance. There’s his realtor daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her cheating husband Richard (Don Johnson), a vocal Trump supporter; his son Walt (a sweater-wearing Michael Shannon) who runs his father’s publishing house; lifestyle guru daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette); and his playboy grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), the black sheep of the family.
There are others, too, most notably Harlan’s trusted caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas). The Thrombeys casually refer to her as “the help” and, in a running gag, are all over the map when it comes to her native South American country. A deeper political dimension slowly takes shape as the family’s cavalier indifference to Marta plays a role in the movie’s unspooling mysteries. Juggling themes of class privilege, immigration and ethnocentricity, “Knives Out” is a whodunit for the Trump era.
Some mysteries first submerge themselves in set-up, the crime in question and the entrance of its central detective. Johnson is too restless for such an approach. He favors flashbacks, by the boat load, to go along with elaborate plot mechanics of reversals and perspective switcheroos. That gives “Knives Out” a somewhat clunky and imperfectly paced first act, something Johnson makes up for with the payoff of his finale. But for a movie with so many fine actors having so much fun, we get surprisingly little of the Thrombeys as a whole.
Instead, our detective calls almost immediately. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a flamboyant Louisiana investigator of such renown that he’s already been profiled in the New Yorker as “the last of the gentleman sleuths.” Even with such immaculate set dressing all around him (the mystery writer’s house is decorated throughout with murder weapons, including a throne of knives), Craig still manages to chew plenty of scenery with his heavily accented Southern-style Poirot. One calls him “Foghorn Leghorn,” another “CSI: KFC.” He’s accompanied by another detective (an underused Lakeith Stanfield), but he quickly makes Marta his sidekick; she has a useful aversion to lies, throwing up every time she tells one
In the end, “Knives Out,” believes earnestly in the whodunit, it just wants to turn it inside out. To say more about that would spoil the fun. But keep an eye here, and elsewhere, on de Armas. She isn’t the biggest star in a film awash with A-listers. But with neither cloak nor dagger, she seizes “Knives Out.” It’s hers.