Writer/director Rian Johnson has made his name with off-kilter takes on established genres. His films have given unique spins on private eyes, con men, mobsters, and even Jedi. Now he’s back to take the murder mystery in a new direction with Knives Out.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery writer, is celebrating his 85th birthday, and his family has come to celebrate. They include daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son Walt (Michael Shannon), and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), along with other family members like son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) and grandson Ransom (Chris Evans).
When Harlan winds up dead the next morning by what appears to be suicide, Lt. Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) come to investigate. Though the method of death appears to be clear cut, Blanc starts pulling at the threads of everyone’s stories, including Harlan’s timid nurse (Ana de Armas), who has an alarming method of showing when she’s lying.
Ironically, Johnson subverts the tropes of murder mysteries by leaning into them. The grand old home with hidden entrances, the detective sniffing out the truth, the method of death, and more are given clever twists that few would attempt, much less pull off. The pleasure of the film lies not in figuring out whodunit, but in how all of the characters interact with each other.
Humor rules the day throughout the film. Whether it’s pointed allusions to modern politics, a reference to Clue, or Craig’s entire Kentucky-fried performance, there are many big laughs to be had. None of the actors are known for starring in comedies, so the fact that the film relies as much on comedy as it does is notable and welcome.
With a cast this big and a story this intricate, each actor supports the others. In almost all cases, if you remove one actor from the equation, the story wouldn’t work quite as well. The standouts are Curtis, Evans, and Craig, who chew the scenery to great effect, while de Armas and Plummer impress just as much with their understated performances. Special note should be made of Stanfield, whose laid-back demeanor makes him the ideal complement to Craig’s over-the-top part.
Knives Out is a great antidote to the Oscar contenders and family fare that dominate this time of year. It’s a purely fun time at the movies thanks to its strong story and fantastic performances.