Writer/director Rian Johnson follows up his divisive Star Wars entry, The Last Jedi, with Knives Out, a venomous and vivacious modern update on the classic whodunnit genre.
Indebted equally to the work of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, this throwback murder-mystery is packed with just the right amount of twists and turns to keep audiences guessing while still keeping things relatively plausible.
Not only does the film wield the most qualified cast of any movie this year, but it provides each actor and actress a role suited perfectly to their capabilities and strengths as a performer. Add in bits of scathing humor and (mostly) incisive social commentary and you have one of the year’s most purely enjoyable spectacles.
The day after his 85th birthday party, the lifeless body of prolific mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in his labyrinthine mansion. While it initially appears to be a suicide, renown detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects there’s more to the story and calls back the guests from the previous evening for interrogation.
That includes an eccentric ensemble of family members: Harlan’s sardonic eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), his meek youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), and free-spirited daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), among others. Also called for questioning is Harlan’s faithful caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas), whose perspective outside of the family may hold the key to solving the case.
The Thrombey clan, which also includes Harlan’s haughty grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) and his shifty son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), is filled with the fiendish motives and shaky alibis that we’ve come to expect from this type of story. Kicking off with a superbly edited sequence that introduces us to each of the players, Johnson uses subjective narration and conflicting claims to keep us on our toes as we try to keep track of the constantly moving pieces. His script, which crackles with sharp-tongued dialogue that suits each character perfectly, also includes enough red herrings to throw even the most astute viewers for a loop.
The performances from the excellent ensemble cast are consistently stellar, mainly because each performer seems to be have so much darn fun with their respective roles. Coming across as Hercule Poirot by way of Colonel Sanders, Craig’s peculiar PI postulates with a ridiculous Southern drawl that recalls his madcap character in 2017’s Logan Lucky. Now in the post-Captain America phase of his career, Evans is freed up to channel a devious energy that gives the film most of its biggest laughs. Even in a more straight-laced heroine role, Ana de Armas gives her protagonist the grace and soulfulness to make her sympathetic from the start.
If there’s disappointment in Knives Out, it’s that we don’t get to spend quite enough time with each of the sharply-drawn characters, especially in the third act as the web of lies and deceit becomes untangled. The stacked cast tends to shine brightest as they’re shuffled between questioning at the outset but their presence becomes more sparse as the clues start to narrow on just a few suspects.
Still, each of the actors gets their licks in as they vie for screen time. Even Frank Oz shows up as Harlan’s beleaguered lawyer who heads up a spirited reading of the mogul’s will.
Knives Out is yet another successful attempt of genre experimentation from one of our most earnestly passionate filmmakers.
Also coming to theaters this weekend
Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, is a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde story about a couple who go on the run after a minor traffic violation leads to the shooting of a police officer.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend only is the cult classic Dial Code Santa Claus, a French thriller that came out a year before Home Alone but shares a similar plot about a child staving off a burglar on Christmas Eve.
Coming to Netflix is the long-awaited Martin Scorsese epic The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, about an aging mob hitman who recalls his possible involvement with the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.