Rian Johnson’s latest is a throwback to the whodunit genre, but the biggest mystery the movie brings to audiences is the question of why there haven’t been more whodunits in recent years. From Agatha Christie adaptations to Alfred Hitchcock, film noir to ensemble cast thrillers, the genre has always made money at the box office. Knives Out, which will likely be a financial success, is a combination of these varying styles with a contemporary twist.
The razor-sharp performances bring it all together. Christopher Plummer plays a writer of detective novels, and the patriarch of the Thrombey household. He resides in a Gothic revival mansion that practically smells of murder. This eerie feeling might have something to do with the creepy antiques inside, the misty fog and autumn leaves outside. Or maybe it’s the hundreds of knives hanging on the walls?
On the morning after his 85th birthday, the writer is found dead. His family suspects suicide, but Daniel Craig’s private detective, aptly named Benoit Blanc, suspects foul play. He rounds up the usual suspects for interrogation, and one by one, puts them in the hot seat, puffing his cigar, and asking hard-hitting questions with a smooth Southern accent.
Jamie Lee Curtis plays the eldest daughter, a real estate agent with no obvious motives. Her husband, played with suave finesse by Don Johnson, has had his vices in the past. The other daughter (Toni Colette) has been stealing money from dad for her daughter’s (Katherine Langford) college fund. Michael Shannon plays their brother, who was fired from his father’s publishing company. Chris Evans weaponizes his charm as the entitled younger brother, strangely named Ransom. Then there’s Marta the caregiver (Ana De Armas), a Latin-American immigrant who has nothing to gain from the murder, yet sticks around to help figure things out.
This story about a dysfunctional family opening on a holiday known for awkward family gatherings is certainly inspired scheduling on Thanksgiving. The film’s self-awareness doesn’t end there, though. At one point a police officer (LaKeith Stanfield) observes, “This guy practically lives on a Clue board.” It’s true. With the exception of Marta, everyone is an obvious spoof of characters in Christie’s beloved novels. Blanc, for example, is the Kentucky Fried Chicken version of Hercule Poirot.
The writer-director Johnson isn’t just playing things for laughs, he is also transcending the genre’s limits, spinning a tale that makes you smile and lean in at the same time. He keeps the surprises coming throughout. Every room has a clue and every footprint leads somewhere new. But the biggest shock is how much fun this is. At a time when mainstream movies aspire to be taken seriously, Knives Out sets out to be nothing more than comfort food. Even if it has the occasional social critique — Marta’s immigration struggles are supposed to be a knife in the heart of Trump — things stay frothy.
Steve Yedlin’s cinematography gives audiences a chance to do some snooping of their own, too. His camera pans from one frantic face to another, tilting the camera to a Dutch angle whenever something’s afoot. Everyone in the family is suspicious, so Blanc and Marta team up to crack the case, inviting the audience to guess along.
Like he did with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Johnson combines old-school storytelling with the fast pace of a modern blockbuster. It’s a combination that is complemented by a campy score, and amplified by the gumption of the performances. Craig’s detective, who describes the case as a doughnut hole within a doughnut hole, as well as De Armas’ heroine, Marta, are delightful and delectable. Still, the script is the star of the show, and the more the yarn unravels, the more exciting Knives gets, cutting deeper towards the clever climax.