The screenplay for the tongue-in-cheeky whodunit Knives Out was written by director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and three episodes of TV’s Breaking Bad). But it could just as well have been adapted from one of Agatha Christie’s country house murders. Set in a spooky old mansion aptly described by one of the cast as a life-size Clue game board, it features many of the Christie signatures: a remote location, seemingly cut off from the world; a suspicious death; a houseful of relatives, each with a motive for murder – or maybe not; and a private detective who’s something of a fish out of water among them but remains unfazed by their condescending obstruction.
Legendary mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer) is dead, having apparently slit his own throat. Two local coppers (Lakeith Stanfield of Selma and Sorry to Bother You; and frequent Johnson collaborator Noah Segan) are inclined to buy the suicide theory and close the case.
Not so fast, buster! An anonymous client has hired private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the old man’s death. He does so while the official police await the postmortem and toxicology report, ruffling the feathers of the rich, spoiled and dysfunctional Thrombeys. The Thrombeys, like the bloodthirsty Le Domas family of Ready or Not, illustrate the difference between eccentricity and craziness. To wit: If you’re crazy and rich, you’re eccentric. If you’re not rich, you’re just crazy. And like the Le Domases, Harlan is obsessed with games – a byproduct of a lifetime of ingenious plotting.
When the family gathers to celebrate the patriarch’s 85th birthday, internecine tensions simmer and occasionally boil over. Harlan uses the occasion to lay down the law to his son Walt (two-time Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon); his daughter Joni (Academy Award nominee Toni Collette), his son-in-law Richard (Golden Globe winner and Primetime Emmy nominee Don Johnson of Miami Vice); and his snotty grandson (Chris Evans, best known as Captain America). They are the front runners in the motive derby. But it’s a crowded field: There’s enough vitriol in the air to fuel a dozen homicides.
Let the games begin!
Even though his fifth go-‘round as James Bond is due out next April, Daniel Craig, like Sean Connery before him, has escaped being typecast as the suave superspy, thanks in part to strong performances in movies like Defiance and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While 007 is a man of action, Blanc is more soft-spoken and cerebral, in the Maigret vein. Sporting a day or two of stubble on his handsome face, he has a conspicuously southern accent. In fact, one of the haughty Thrombeys dismisses him as “CSI-KFC.” But he’s a keen observer who doesn’t miss a trick. Like any self-respecting Agatha Christie detective, he is the star of the movie.
Craig sets a high bar, and everyone in the supporting cast clears it handily. Jamie Lee Curtis is especially captivating, in a creepy sort of way, as Harlan’s daughter Linda, an ice queen who has clawed her way to the top of her profession. She’s the only Thrombey who’s made anything of herself, and she makes sure everyone knows it.
Evans, with his background as an Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero, plays adroitly against type as the hotheaded parasite Ransom Drysdale. Less than an hour into the movie, you’ll find it hard to believe you ever rooted for one of his characters.
Nice work, too, by Ana de Armas as Harlan’s self-effacing, almost mousy, nurse, Marta. She is set apart from the Thrombeys by the facts that she is – and more importantly, is treated as – just hired help, and that she is as sweet and selfless as they are grasping and poisonous. De Armas shows more of the talent she displayed a couple of years ago as Joi in Blade Runner 2049.
Johnson’s direction is sure-footed; his screenplay not so much. While it is clever and inventive, the final reveal imposes too much on the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, even though it takes up two hours and 40 minutes, whodunit fans are certain to find the time well spent.
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