Modern crime fiction has an existential streak to it, often featuring murders that cause detectives to question their faith in humanity. But in this film, when a detective solves a murder most foul, it’s more like a parlor trick than the result of exhaustive procedural detail.
Knives Out, the new whodunit from writer-director Rian Johnson, is about such a murder. He riffs on the genre popularized by Agatha Christie, but adds a modern sensibility so the film is also subversive, even political. Thanks to a phenomenal acting ensemble, this is one of the most satisfying pieces of entertainment in years.
It all begins with the discovery of a body. Mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in the attic of his massive mansion with his throat slashed. He died on the night of his 85th birthday party, and all of his guests are suspects. They all have a motive, too: His son and publisher Walt (Michael Shannon) wants complete control of his father’s publishing empire, while his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette) is cut off from his money. Two cops (Noah Segan and Lakeith Stanfield) are on the case, with an assist from Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private detective with an outrageous Kentucky accent.
There are many flashbacks, and Rian Johnson carefully reveals one detail after another. He knows the journey is more fun than the destination, so he lets the characters spar with one another when they should be focusing on the investigation at hand. In between all this squabbling—including Chris Evans as Ransom, the family’s black sheep—Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) emerges as the key figure in the case. Johnson shrewdly shifts to her point of view, and through her our entire notion of the case turns on its head.
By shifting focus away from the Thrombey children to Marta, Johnson is able to create his political subtext: Marta immigrated to the United States legally, and there is a running gag about the Thrombey family continuing to reference her country of origin incorrectly. Knives Out is brazen in how it skewers rich right-wingers, right down to a minor character who is called a “Nazi” by his family.
While Knives Out does solve the case, what makes it fun is its celebration of eccentricity. All the characters have personality quirks or compulsions, and Johnson shrewdly puts them in situations where they have no choice but to perform them. Marta has an unusual physical reaction whenever she tells a lie, so all the characters find a way to use this to their advantage. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Linda, Harlan’s oldest child, and she is her own worst enemy thanks to her seething, brittle nature.
Still, no one in this film is more eccentric than Daniel Craig. Craig’s accent is comically ridiculous here, and he draws out lines to an absurd degree. At one point, Ransom calls him “CSI KFC.” This self-awareness is key to the movie’s appeal. Johnson’s film is not a parody of classic murder mysteries but a devoted remix of them. As the dysfunctional family members lash out at each other, Craig’s exaggerated manner conceals a keen sense of observation. In a reference to Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Benoit uses his quirks as misdirection.
There is a long, tense stretch in Knives Out in which the case becomes so complex that it is unclear whether the film can even arrive at a solution. But Johnson is a stylist specializing in characters who are smarter than the genres in which they appear, and Knives Out is a slyly ambitious film. Yet, both he and the cast make it all look so easy.
Knives Out opens Wednesday at Landmark Atlantic Plumbing Cinema.
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