Mystery novels — Agatha Christie serves as the standard bearer here — work in similar ways, except they boil things down to a battle between the author and the reader. Can you crack the case the author has built before the truth is revealed? The twists and dead ends incorporated into the proceedings are a delicious part of the fun.
With Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson (in his follow-up to Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi) has taken the pure rush of playing Clue and merged it with the surreal head game of the classic mystery novel to concoct a highly enjoyable diversion that could become a cult classic or wind up being the perfect sleeper during this year’s awards season hysteria.
Forget the whowinsit drama. Settle down instead and try to figure out what happened to mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (an always game Christopher Plummer) on the night of his 85th birthday. What should have been a wonderful family celebration turns into a battle royale of family squabbles, and poor Harlan winds up with his throat slit, lying in a pool of blood.
Was it his eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a force of nature who runs her own business (which she is quick to remind everyone that she built from the ground up, much like her father did with his storytelling and publishing empire)? She’s married to Richard (Don Johnson), who looks like an updated version of the guy from Sade’s first video, “Smooth Operator,” so you just know there’s something going on there. Of course, you have to wonder about their rakishly headstrong offspring, Ransom (Chris Evans), who seems to be the black sheep, which makes you wonder if being the black sheep in a family full of dark, shady characters even matters?
Next up is Harlan’s youngest son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who oversees his father’s publishing empire. But it’s plain that Walt’s not much of a decision-maker at the end of the day and the situation is grating on him. He’s got a barely present wife named Donna (Riki Lindhome) and a creepy alt-right son (Jaeden Martell), who appears ready to head off to the next rally in Charlottesville.
Rounding out the immediate family, so to speak, is Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), who was married to Harlan’s deceased son and has been embraced by the family along with her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford). By “embraced” I mean Joni and Meg received stipends and college tuition to keep them living the life to which they would have likely grown accustomed.
Hovering on the periphery are Fran (Edi Patterson), the longtime housekeeper, and Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nursing attendant, who was more of a confidant and companion than mere caretaker. Marta, curiously, suffers from an inability to lie; when she does, she projectiles vomits, a trait that’s put to the test quite often throughout the film.
The characters are something else, but what’s truly special is the collection of talent Johnson has corralled together to bring this game to life. They most definitely feel like family as we watch them backbite and connive against one another with glee, while working overtime to maintain the appearance of being a caring and loving clan.
And there’s great pleasure to be had in watching the verve Daniel Craig brings to the role of Benoit Blanc, the noted sleuth commissioned to solve the case (which was initially ruled a suicide). But the real thrill comes from observing LaKeith Stanfield’s Lieutenant Elliot attempt to work the evidence knowing full well that the deck is stacked against him. Truth be told, this character becomes the real stand-in for the audience, because he gets to comment (winkingly) on the whole affair through eye rolls and double takes that never cross the line into broad hijinks. He’s not actively breaking the fourth wall, but he recognizes what’s going on and just goes along for the ride, which isn’t quite genre-breaking, although Johnson bends and reshapes things in an impressively sharp image. (In theaters) (PG-13) Grade: A