If a suspicious character is not played by someone famous, chances are that person is not the murderer. That is why Agatha Christie movies used to have little pictures of the cast running along the bottom of their lobby posters. It showed off how many suspects there were. Winking homage is paid to those films in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which opens today nationwide.
Johnson’s screenplay is all about its twists, so some caginess is in order, to prevent spoilers. It is safe to say Harlan Thrombey, a celebrated mystery novelist and patriarch of a wildly dysfunctional and elitist family is about to die a premature death. Marta Cabrera, his private nurse is probably the only one who truly mourns him. The cops assume it is an open-and-shut case, but Benoit Blanc, an eccentric Southern gentleman private detective has reason to suspect otherwise. An unknown client hired his services to investigate, which is rather suspicious in itself.
Much to her surprise, Cabrera finds herself pressed into service as Blanc’s Watson. Of course, it becomes increasingly awkward for her, because she harbors her own secrets. Needless to say, everything is not as it seems.
There is quite a bit of clever misdirection going on throughout the film. It would be no fair telling, but rest assured the big reveals are all quite satisfying. The knowing humor is also mostly rather sly, but there are times when the scoldy class warfare messaging should have been throttled down. This is supposed to be larky fun, not a Theodore Dreiser adaptation.
Fortunately, Daniel Craig always keeps things snappy when he is on-screen, delighting viewers with Blanc’s impossibly lazy drawl. Honestly, that accent deserves some kind of award. It is also great fun watching him effortless shift from genteel charm to gleeful cunning.
Frankly, it is rather impressive that Ana de Armas can keep up Craig and the rest of the colorful ensemble as the almost fatally nice Cabrera. Of course, only Blanc can withstand the withering attitude Jamie Lee Curtis projects as the tartly cynical eldest daughter, Linda Drysdale. She is a totally believable chip off the block that is Christopher Plummer’s uber-yankee Thrombey (and really ought to have more screen time, but she makes the most of what she gets). Likewise, Plummer has the appropriate lordly presence, but he has some surprisingly engaging humanizing moments with De Armas.
Yet, Don Johnson might just score the biggest laughs as the venal and pretentious son-in-law, Richard Drysdale. Honestly, Johnson has yet to get the credit he deserves for his comedic chops (check out his razor-sharp cornpone turn in Cold in July, if you doubt it).
Weirdly, Toni Collette is largely pushed to the margins as Thrombey’s widowed hippy-dippy daughter-in-law Joni, but Michael Shannon shows off his usual simmering rage and intensity as Thrombey’s son and publishing manager, Walt. Chris Evans portrays the shallow playboy grandson, Hugh “ransom” Drysdale, which makes sense. Plus, genre specialist Noah Segan regularly elevates the energy level playing the naïve Trooper Wagner. As a bonus, M. Emmet Walsh and Frank Oz pop up in small parts (providing an apostolic link to Blood Simple, in the case of the former).
Knives is chocked full of clever genre hat-tips, like the Thrombey mansion, which is based on the sets of the original Sleuth film. Even the name Thrombey is a reference to the 1980s “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” YA novel, Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? That kind of attention to detail makes the film feel so legit. Arguably, both Clue and Murder by Death were funnier, but Knives is more successful as a legit country house mystery in its own right. Recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm, Knives Out opens today (11/27) nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.