“The guy practically lives on a Clue board,” observes a cop (Lakeith Stanfield) investigating the suspicious death of bestselling mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) in Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s sly modern take on the Agatha Christie–style whodunit. That’s an apt description of the Thrombey mansion, a Victorian labyrinth crammed full of secret passageways, creepy antique figurines, and displays of the author’s formidable vintage dagger collection. But the line also serves as a tipoff that Knives Out knows exactly what kind of movie it is: a sendup of twisty murder mysteries with all-star ensemble casts that also loves and respects that silly tradition.
The morning after celebrating his 85th birthday with his family, Harlan is discovered by the housekeeper (Edi Patterson) with his throat slit. His death is at first ruled a suicide, but as celebrity detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) soon discovers, every member of the messed-up Thrombey family had a plausible motive to off the patriarch.
A zippily edited early montage introduces the extended Thrombey clan as the cops interview them about the last night of Harlan’s life. His daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is an icy real estate mogul who likes to present herself as a self-made success, though it took a million-dollar loan from her father to launch her company. Similarly, Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs his father’s publishing business, fancies himself a budding media mogul, when in fact he’s a barely competent lackey. Joni (Toni Collette), the hippy-dippy widow of Harlan’s now-deceased son, depends on her father-in-law’s wealth to support her business, a Goop-like wellness empire deliciously named “Flam.” Other unsavory relations include Don Johnson as Linda’s philandering husband, Jaeden Martell as Walt’s creepy alt-right son, and Katherine Langford as Joni’s entitled daughter, who’s currently attending an expensive liberal arts college on her wealthy grandfather’s dime.
The only beacon of decency in this murky moral landscape is Harlan’s personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who hails from some Spanish-speaking country that her privileged white employers can never keep straight even though, in a running joke, she’s forever being introduced as “one of the family.” Marta suffers from a unique condition that causes her to vomit every time she utters an untruth. The canny if unorthodox Detective Blanc uses this gastric lie-detector test, as well as Marta’s genuine devotion to her late boss, to enlist her help in unraveling the case. And midway through the film, just as we are beginning to get a handle on the motivations of the backstabbing Thrombey clan, in swans a gloriously skeezy Chris Evans as Ransom, the old man’s unemployed wastrel of a grandson, who forms an unlikely alliance with Marta as the two of them work together (or do they?) to reconstruct what happened on Harlan’s last night on earth.
If Knives Out’s setup, with its houseful of eccentric suspects and flashbacks from multiple points of view, feels cozily retro, writer-director Johnson’s approach to the material is startlingly modern and politically engaged. The class divide between the spoiled, oblivious Thrombeys and their struggling household “help” shows up in the smallest domestic details of their interactions, in ways that are both amusing and chilling. Marta’s mother (whom we meet early on watching an episode of Murder, She Wrote dubbed into Spanish) is an undocumented immigrant who risks deportation if her daughter gets mixed up with the police. Later on, the Trump-supporting side of the Thrombey family gets into an argument with the would-be liberal side over immigration policy. Their debates are presented without sanctimony or righteous indignation; all the Thrombeys are more concerned with staking out territory and accumulating wealth than with effecting social change. As the movie goes on, Marta’s advantage over the squabbling Thrombeys begins to increase—an advantage that springs from nothing so much as her unshakable inner decency. In a world entirely driven by transactional relationships, self-delusion, and greed, the young woman who saw Harlan as a fellow human being worthy of love and care has a kind of superpower, stronger even than Captain America’s.
Another unique element of this diabolically clever rug-puller is that, rather than saving the revelation of what happened on the fateful night for a final expository speech (“I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here …”), Johnson provides an accurate (if incomplete) account of Harlan’s last moments before the film is even half over. What unfolds after that point involves further flashbacks that illuminate different aspects of the crime, subtle shifts in the relationships of characters to the truth about Harlan and about themselves, and a series of half-comic suspense sequences, including what one character dubs “the dumbest car chase of all time.” The revelations and reversals keep coming until the final, supremely satisfying shot, with each new twist explained if not always fully understood by the courtly superdetective Blanc. Craig’s performance is as over-the-top as his molasses-thick Tennessee drawl, which may annoy some viewers as much as it does several of the movie’s characters (one calls Blanc “Foghorn Leghorn” and another sarcastically inquires if he’s a character on CSI: KFC). But all the actors, especially Craig, Curtis, and Evans, seem to relish wrapping their mouths around Johnson’s poisonously funny dialogue.
As was the case in his debut feature, the brilliant 2005 genre-bender Brick, Johnson—best known for writing and directing The Last Jedi, the 2017 Star Wars installment that updated the franchise for the 21st century while pissing off the most reactionary element of its fan base—shines above all as a writer. There’s no one on earth, or even in the movies, who talks quite the way the people in Knives Out do, but we become conversant in their idiosyncratic patois by listening to it and learning the rules of this stylized fictional world.
The fifth film in an already wildly varied career—in between the neo-noir high school drama Brick and the grand-scale sci-fi spectacle The Last Jedi, he made the screwball heist caper The Brothers Bloom and the existential time-travel thriller Looper—Knives Out makes me sort of wish Johnson hadn’t committed himself to directing three new Star Wars movies, a project whose future now appears to be in a state of suspension. It’s not that Johnson wouldn’t find interesting new places to take the franchise, but for a 45-year-old director so clearly at the top of his game, the time sunk into making three gazillion-dollar blockbusters in a row seems like a real opportunity cost. I want to see a Rian Johnson musical, a Rian Johnson Western, and a Rian Johnson romantic melodrama. Can we sign him up for that trilogy instead?