Fans of writer/director Rian Johnson previously saw him dabble in the mystery genre with 2005’s Brick, a hard-boiled high school noir in which murder was afoot and everyone was guilty of something. After dabbling in preexisting universes with key episodes of Breaking Bad and that one time he turned Star Wars fandom into one big West Side Story gang war, Johnson returns to creating his own characters with Knives Out, a stellar whodunit that flips genre expectations, venerates a few old tropes, and, best of all, lets Daniel Craig have a rollicking vacation away from those glum Bond films and their even glummer press junkets.
Short version for the unfamiliar: I do declare…there has been a murder! In an average small town except for the one mansion, bestselling mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) lives to celebrate his 85th birthday, a good five years behind Plummer himself, only to be found dead the next morning with his throat slashed. The local authorities are stumped and not entirely on board with the initial theory of death by brutal suicide, but they don’t have to ponder for long. Enter Daniel Craig as the gentlemanly Benoit Blanc, southern-fried private investigator. He has no idea who hired him, but he’s determined to get to the bottom of it, arrive at the bottom early, and wait patiently at the bottom for the perpetrator to fall toward it. As he sums up his eccentric methods: “I anticipate the terminus of gravity’s rainbow.”
Right about here is where the joke would go regarding Mr. Blanc’s distinguished accent, which he shares with no one else around, but the movie heads us all off with its own references to Colonel Sanders and Foghorn Leghorn. Besides, we have enough British detectives in pop culture. Why not diversify the mix with a shrewd Southern gumshoe?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Though Mr. Blanc has the hero’s role, much of the tale is told through the viewpoint of Marta (Ana de Armas from Blade Runner 2049), the victim’s private nurse. She supervised his meds, checked his vitals, and spent more sincere quality time with him than any of his blood relatives ever did. She may also have been the last person to see him alive. When the reading of Thrombey’s will bequeaths to her a most disproportionate boon, the rest of the cast look to her as the prime suspect.
But were the other would-be heirs any more saintly? There’s Michael Shannon (Man of Steel) as his son Walt, who ran Thrombey’s self-publishing company whose success can be attributed more to its one author’s offerings than to its publisher. There’s Captain America himself, Chris Evans in a snarky turn as a prodigal trust-fund baby. There’s Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Hereditary) as a flighty social media influencer (bleah). The sturdiest of Thrombey’s kids is the Jamie Lee Curtis, the only one to make her own way in the world, but who seems to have some tension with her husband Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Watchmen). And don’t forget the two grandkids, Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) and Jaeden Martell (young Bill from IT), respectively a college-entrenched SJW and an alt-right internet troll, yin and yang, more likely to stab each other than their grandpa.
Aiding Mr. Blanc in his pursuit of the truth are Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out) as the homicide detective assigned to the case and Noah Segan (Brick, Looper) as a state trooper/gofer. Other players include K Callan (Martha Kent from Lois & Clark) as the victim’s ancient, senile mother, who may or may not have seen something useful; Frank Oz (Yoda! Fozzie! directing stuff!) as the lawyer tasked with the reading of the will; Marlene Forte (who did a short but strong turn on Runaways) as Marta’s mom, whose presence in America may be lacking some requirements; and M. Emmet Walsh, whom we all thought was dead but is in fact seven years younger than Plummer, as a security guard who can still work a VCR.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Thrombey’s adult kids each have their separate careers and varying degrees of success, but they share one common bond: they all believe they deserve to inherit some of their dead dad’s fortune because they were his flesh and blood. To them family should matter above all else — even if they never spent time with him, even if they were big jerks all their lives, even when they treated him shabbily and/or were the largest leeches ever to siphon off his earnings. Upon his passing Dad should be nice and spoil them with free money anyway because blood is thicker than merit. Even Curtis’ self-made entrepreneur, the only true independent among them, insists she/they deserve that money even though she’s not really in dire need. The kids all reckon they’d earn his fortune just by being his kids. Because privilege has its privileges.
The siblings find more common ground when they realize Dad may have loved Marta the nurse best. It doesn’t necessarily matter to them that she’s from south of the border, though (in a quite telling running gag) none of them can remember how far south of said border. Once they collectively begin to view her as The Enemy, though…tongues start slipping a little more and some planned backlash hinges on a key aspect of her origin. Diversity is cool until we need a way to take advantage of it for profit.
Nitpicking? I expected Johnson would find ways to subvert the format, and to an extent of course he does. What begins as a quickly jump-started whodunit ceases to be one for a while, then it is again, until it isn’t, but perhaps it eventually is. The ever-tilting playing field may seem annoying to viewers who consider themselves burned by his past works and just knew Johnson couldn’t play it straight and would go meta or deconstructionist or willfully contrarian or whatever just to mess with their heads and refuse to cater to them with a basic popcorn film. A modicum of patience is asked, yet amply rewarded by the very end.
So what’s to like? Old-fashioned mysteries have become an extinct species on the big screen apart from Kenneth Branagh’s all-star revival of Murder on the Orient Express (and its forthcoming sequel Death on the Nile). In all of today’s mainstream entertainment, exceedingly rare are the mysteries that play fair, plant clues judiciously in plain sight, and give eagle-eyed viewers the chance to put them together and solve the mystery themselves before the big reveal…or, as is more often the case, learn the solution at the end, then smack their foreheads as they go back and see that what they missed really was right there in the frame.
Knives Out achieves this with an exquisite attention to detail in set design, prop setup, research (medical pros should nod approvingly at a couple of clever bits), and even the occasionally equivocal dialogue (my son caught one moment in particular that gave away the gambit to him). Johnson’s clockwork mechanisms run sleekly in that beautiful, slickly shot, old-school sort of mansion, moody and elegant, loaded with secret trappings and nooks of the sort in which many a grade-A murder mystery simultaneously haunts and thrives.
Some knowledge of detective stories is helpful before going in, but the performances will carry along any newcomers as they learn the ropes of this bygone story structure. Craig is a sheer hoot as the dapper, down-home detective, a relaxed interviewer who rarely raises his voice or his pulse as he takes charge. The suspects maximize their assorted levels of tension, with Curtis as the most commanding presence among them, though Shannon at one point manages to be menacing without bellowing like Zod. Many might have bought tickets just to see Chris Evans indulging his dormant dark side as a snarky man-child looking to get rich quick, which he handles with the anticipated pizzazz.
At the center of it all is the relative youngster Ana de Armas, whose caregiver Marta is naive and knowing, possibly innocent and guilty, professionally trained yet in over her head. The back-and-forth between her and Craig is the crux of Knives Out, harbingers of the film’s shifting fortunes as these two strangers figure out whether their game is cat-and-mouse, scavenger hunt, or Clue. Whichever way the battleground turns, the genre is so uncommonly traveled anymore that its return to form is a welcome delight.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Knives Out end credits, but I giggled a little at noting the Special Thanks section included Angela Lansbury, whose TV classic Murder, She Wrote has a brief cameo in the film like you’ve never seen it before, unless you’re not from ’round here and have seen it like this before.