Harlan is dead. Harlan Thrombey, that is. You haven’t heard of him, but the cop duo investigating his apparent suicide has. In the universe of Knives Out he was a celebrated pulp novelist with a multi-million-dollar empire built off the back of his twisty murder mysteries. Now, he’s all but a corpse—a pint of his own blood splattered on the rug of his attic study, a knife in his limp hand, his throat slit. It seems like a given that the elderly patriarch, played with a spark by Christopher Plummer, took his own life. Post-funeral, his eclectic gaggle of descendants are ready to wrap up the will-reading and walk away from the bloody affair with healthy portions of his piggy bank. There’s one wrench in the works, however, in the form of a tweed suit and cashmere coat-clad detective. This mysterious figure is a modern-day Hercule Poirot, an observant yet lively fellow who’s been hired by an unknown party to put his keen mind to work on the Thrombey case, a case that isn’t as open-and-shut as it first appears.
Rian Johnson is the wizard behind this impeccable magic show; his balance of smokescreen trickery and bravura theatrics make Knives Out an exceptionally engaging watch. It’s always several steps ahead of you, its screenplay filled with sleight-of-hand and clever illusion. Johnson takes care to avoid gimmicks, though—while the film follows in the footsteps of Agatha Christie, Johnson playfully twists the tropes of the murder-mystery genre and stamps his unique wax seal on it. There’s a wry humor throughout, but it never falls as far into comedic parody as the 1976 picture Murder By Death or, for that matter, Clue (1985). Johnson wears his influences on his sleeve, but it’s a sleeve rolled up— he means business, and Knives Out certainly carries it out. For all the curveballs he throws us, there’s a warm heart at the center that keeps the story ticking along. While the first hour might drag ever-so-slightly, it’s more than worth it to watch Johnson hit the second half out of the park, culminating in a joyous finale that perfectly ends the cat-and-mouse game.
Daniel Craig sinks his teeth into the hammy persona of Benoit Blanc, the southern-fried “gentleman sleuth” who takes his sweet time slow-roasting each and every suspect, turning up the investigative heat with the intense gaze of his piercing flame-blue eyes. He’s not the only actor chewing the scenery in Knives Out—the juicy ensemble includes a venomous Michael Shannon, a flamboyant Toni Collette, a fiery Don Johnson, and the ever-entertaining Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s traded the gruesome slashery of Halloween for a more sophisticated, though still autumnal, world of slaughter. Chris Evans gleefully flexes his acting chops as Ransom Drysdale, Harlan’s hedge-fund grandson and a character who lives up to a certain Avengers pun with his aberrant attitude: he’s America’s ass, and Evans is loving every second of it. A standout performance would be hard to pick if it weren’t for Ana de Armas, who steals the show with an immaculate turn as the compassionate Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s beloved nurse who hails from Uruguay, Paraguay or Ecuador, depending on who you ask; the Thrombeys aren’t the most caring of people.
While a whodunit on the surface, Knives Out houses a politically-charged core that gifts the film a contemporary energy. The details might be edging into spoiler territory, so let’s just say that alt-right trolling and the Trumpian views of certain Thrombey family members rear their ugly heads, and are things that Marta must contend with. Johnson seems determined to make Knives Out more than just another entry in the pantheon of private-eye fiction, and his crew pulls out all the stops to make his wish a reality. The magnificent gothic mansion, with staircases and bookshelves galore, couldn’t be a more apt setting — as remarked early on, the family “practically lives in a Clue board.” Cinematographer Steve Yedlin truly makes the most of the ornate locale, delighting in the lush interiors and building a cloak-and-dagger tone with candlelight and shadow. Shot on 35mm film, Knives Out possesses a rich visual texture matched sonically by Nathan Johnson’s classical score. There’s a tactility to this feature presentation not unlike that of a dusty paperback; open the cover, and you’ll discover an absorbing page-turner.