In a manner befitting the stick-’em-with-the-pointy-end weapons in its title, Knives Out slices and dices the whodunnit genre, arriving in theaters as one of the more entertaining films of the year. Writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper) has crafted a unique and deliciously clever ensemble film that simultaneously skewers and pays homage to classics like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie along with popular satires, including Deathtrap and Murder by Death.
Famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) celebrated his 85th birthday amongst his highly dysfunctional family and then retired for the night to slit his own throat. Or did he? A week later, the police (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are still on the case, now aided by private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose benefactor is suspiciously unknown. Among the murder suspects are—well, everyone in the family, including: Harlan’s free-spirit daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), his scheming son Walt (Michael Shannon), cynical grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), and philandering son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), each of whom, we learn, had a perfectly good motive. Also in play is Richard’s wife, Harlan’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), along with Harlan’s private nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), and Joni’s daughter Meg (Katherine Langford).
Suspect-by-suspect, Blanc attempts to piece the events of the night in question together, but when everyone’s lying, it ain’t easy. Adding to his frustration is that his only clues seem to be a speck of a bloodstain, half of an overheard argument, and a degaussed VHS security tape. But, as with every great mystery, there’s always more than meets the eye, and by the time we reach the wholly satisfying conclusion, you’ll want to do nothing more than just go back and watch the whole thing again.
Writer-director Johnson has long wanted to put together a good old-fashioned murder mystery, first floating the idea after the success of his 2005 breakout Brick, and let’s all be happy he finally found the time. Knives Out is a wicked, fiendishly witty film that transcends the genre while at the same time remaining true to its roots. Adding to the fun is the outstanding production design by David Crank and art direction by Jeremy Woodward, who created Thrombey’s gothic mansion as an ode to whack-a-doo chotchkies (“He lives in a Clue board!”, as one character puts it). Also of note is the perfectly off-kilter score by Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin)—just another element in a film that has more layers than grandma’s baklava and is just as delightful to savor.
Oozing through the film with a picayune drawl that would impress even Foghorn Leghorn, Craig anchors the film with his drole delivery and method-to-his-madness demeanor. It’s as if Hercule Poirot decided to up and leave England one day and trade it all in for shrimp and grits on the bayou. De Armas shines, too, holding her own (and then some) alongside heavyweights like Curtis and Plummer.
When the dust eventually settles on the Thrombey affair and the police finally get their man (or woman… no spoilers here!), it’s difficult to look back and feel anything but immensely satisfied at what we’ve just witnessed. Though it surely won’t summon the rebirth of the ol’ whodunnit, Knives Out stands on its own as an instant classic. It’s as sharp as they come, and isn’t that the whole point?