The snappy all-star comic murder-mystery is a cinematic feat requiring such a high level of execution that it is rarely attempted — and more rarely done well. Cult fandoms and cable TV have kept the much-quoted 1985 farce Clue in constant rotation, along with Neil Simon’s 1978 Murder By Death, and those basically are the only two examples of the genre that anyone remembers. Clue was smart, oddly kinky, and a pristine microcosm of ’80s comedy character actors mixing murder and laughs. But despite all the talent onboard, the movie flopped at the time.
Knives Out (★★★★☆), on the other hand, should make a killing at the box office. An impeccable addition to the genre, this film won’t have to wait years to be appreciated for its clever blend of whodunit, social satire, and gigawatt movie stars inclined to play a tangy mystery for every juicy twist.
Writer-director Rian Johnson made his career breakthrough with his well-received, indie update of film noir Brick, before graduating to the helm of one of the most gargantuan vehicles in the film galaxy, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Where the overloaded Last Jedi presented a rough narrative climb to an intriguing finish, Knives Out proves a nimble trip from beginning to end. A seemingly airtight mystery, the film hums along to an engaging pace of dramatic reveals, surprising confessions, and potent, timely jabs at the madly wealthy family of backstabbers treading this high-wire act.
The extended Thrombey-Drysdale family comprises a vividly realized collection of eccentrics, kooks, and possible criminals, headed by mystery writer Harlan Thrombey. Christopher Plummer lends the demanding patriarch a likable twinkle to make up for the man’s mean streak, both of which flow to some degree through Harlan’s progeny, as those qualities also do through the film. Of Harlan’s adult children, proudly self-made mogul Linda (an on-point Jamie Lee Curtis) better reflects his impish sense of humor, while crabby Walt (Michael Shannon), whom Harlan allows to run the family publishing empire, appears to have inherited the old man’s bitter edge. Harlan’s third son is deceased, but left a widow, Joni (Toni Collette), who assuaged her grief by focusing on her lifestyle and beauty brand Flam — or, Flan — something ridiculous.
The bickering Thrombeys assemble — along with Linda’s shallow husband Richard (Don Johnson), her rakish, ne’er-do-well son Ransom (Chris Evans), and Harlan’s trusted home healthcare worker Marta (Ana de Armas) — at the sprawling family estate for an intimate birthday celebration, and of course someone dies. Most auspiciously, Knives Out boxes itself into a corner very early on by revealing what could be construed as too much information too soon about the central murder plot. Then, undaunted, the film dances adroitly around that bombshell plot point towards a suspenseful and unexpected conclusion.
It’s a masterful backflip, abetted by awards-caliber editing and an ensemble that fully gets into the spirit of slinging insults and accusations. And none in the cast seems to be having more fun slinging accusations, usually in the form of backhanded compliments, than Daniel Craig, as the renowned private detective on the case, Benoit Blanc. The private eye’s honey-dripping South’un accent is as ostentatious as his name. Benoit is like an Agatha Christie creation by way of Tennessee Williams, and it’s a kick to hear James Bond relishing the character’s fastidious, Foghorn Leghorn turns of phrase as the detective leads the chase.
The biting script, meanwhile, targets the family’s glib, spoiled obliviousness, particularly through their inclusion of nominal servant Marta at the family table. After years of service, the Thrombeys can’t seem to agree which Latin American country Marta comes from, but they’re very happy to inform her she should consider herself “part of the family.” They comport themselves, more or less, like a family she might long to be part of, except for the lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. Dutiful Marta and detective Benoit, aided by police Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield), are the eyes and ears on the outside looking in at this family of vipers, trying to extract truth from the web of lies and manipulation.
The film emphasizes Marta’s outsider status by depicting her as apparently the only member of the Thrombey household not guided by self-interest. But even her decency can seem suspect at times. What does Marta really want? Knives Out teases as well as it entertains. It not only refreshes an old-fashioned genre, but generates laughs with its modern, funhouse reflection of an American family that might be stabbed in the heart by greed.
Knives Out is rated PG-13, and opens in theaters everywhere on Wednesday, Nov. 27. Visit www.fandango.com.