Making a whodunnit that’s both enjoyable and truly puzzling has got to be a challenge in 2019. A century of mystery movies and an onslaught of TV procedurals have baked a deep understanding of genre conventions into pretty much everyone on the planet. To put a little spin on a favorite Bushism, “You can’t get fooled again.”
So how does Rian Johnson make Knives Out work as well as it does? By focusing less on the who and more on the how.
The movie centers on the death of an ultra-rich crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose relatives have gathered for his 85th birthday. After multiple altercations turn the party into a powder keg, Thrombey retires to his study to play Go with his caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas). When she returns to the mansion the next morning, she finds Thrombey dead, his throat slit and a knife in his hand. It looks like a suicide, but private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig)—hired under mysterious circumstances—thinks otherwise. And with the entire family at odds, everyone’s a suspect.
To reveal more about the plot would give away some piece of the puzzle, so let’s leave it at broad strokes. Johnson has crafted an intricate tale here, nodding at Clue and Agatha Christie but tweaking tropes enough to avoid being too referential or formulaic. Unlike a lot of murder mysteries, the killer’s identity becomes somewhat secondary. Though Knives Out is marketed as a whodunnit, it’s really a howdeydodat, and that makes it a welcome change of pace. The fact that it still wows is a credit to both Johnson’s filmmaking skill and unconventional thinking. It’s no surprise, since Johnson broke out with 2005’s neo-noir anomaly Brick, but it’s worth acknowledging given the redundant landscape of the format today.
Of course, these interlocking ensemble pieces are nothing without a cast that can execute across the board. Fortunately, Knives Out is overflowing with talent. Craig will likely stand out as the Poirot proxy due to the cool factor of supernatural deduction as much as his character’s decidedly not-British accent, but everybody—and I mean everybody—is good here. Chris Evans gleefully plays away from Captain America as dickish grandson Ransom. Don Johnson builds on his sorta-to-super racist scumbag portfolio with gusto. Toni Collette, whose Hereditary Oscar-snubbing still bothers me for some reason, pulls no punches as a Goopy Gwyneth Paltrow type. Michael Shannon is obviously Michael Shannon, so his take on youngest son Walt runs the gamut from funny to creepy with ease. And de Armas expertly holds the whole thing together. Even the bit parts are well rounded, with amusing appearances by Frank Oz and M. Emmet Walsh, among others. It’s hard to think of a better cast than this.
All together, Knives Out unfolds with a handful of great performances and no small amount of ingenuity. It’s surprisingly funny and entertaining ’til the end, which makes it one of the better moviegoing experiences this year. With director Johnson tapped for his own Star Wars trilogy, there was some concern among fans that he wouldn’t have the energy for more novel projects. Thankfully, Knives Out shows he’s got plenty in the tank.
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas
Theater: Area theaters, now playing