Knives Out is the type of movie that’s not so much a dying breed as one that just occurs uncommonly “in the wild.” Hollywood seems to release a new take on the classic (i.e., Agatha Christie-imprinted) murder mystery “who dunnit”—where an eccentrically mannered detective attempts to figure out who amongst a roomful of suspects has committed murder most foul—every five-to-10 years. For most viewers, the pleasures of such movies go beyond trying to figure out the killer before the detective does—there’s also typically a star-studded cast chewing up the scenery. Beyond dependable Christie fare like Death on the Nile (1978) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017), there’s Clue (1985), Gosford Park (2001) and now, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.
Johnson’s latest starts out in classic who-dunnit fashion—acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide the night after gathering his family together and delivering a series of unpopular messages. Enter the local police (led by Lakeith Stansfield’s Det. Lt. Elliott) and eccentrically mannered (there we go!) private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Suspects are interrogated. Secrets are revealed.
Then, right as the viewer is gearing up to lay some Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot/Encyclopedia Brown-level discernment on all this, Johnson reveals what happened to the elder Thrombey. This flips the entire experience for the viewer, as they go from trying to figure out what happened to wondering if the truth will be discovered. (This is, itself, a bit of a distraction.)
It’s all delightful to watch.
Much as he did with Dashiell Hammett-style noir in his debut, Brick, Johnson shows both a reverence for and a willingness to tinker with the tropes and formula underpinning his story. (Luckily, Hammett and Christie fandom likely have fewer toxic veins than that certain other franchise he worked on.) Johnson’s tinkering works especially well in the world of Christie, which by nature invites improvisation to keep its audience guessing. (I especially love that the film has a clear “pause the movie” moment where, after it’s released on streaming, one could stop the action and see if first-time watchers can solve the mystery.)
Johnson is aided in his efforts by a uniformly excellent cast of past, present and future movie headliners. The Thrombey brood and brood-in-laws include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Chris Evans. At the center of it all is the deceased patriarch’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) and her own eccentric character trait—an inability to lie without puking. If the rest of the cast provides fuel for the film, de Armas’ Marta and Craig’s Blanc are the engine. Craig goes full Foghorn Leghorn (or, in one of the many great lines from Johnson’s script, “CSI KFC”) with Blanc in his search for the “donut’s hole” while de Armas anchors the proceedings with an earnestness that is both appealing and, thanks to mystery genre conventions, hard to fully trust.
Ultimately, Knives Out accomplishes what it sets out to do. That might sound like faint or even damning praise with another film or in another genre, but here, it’s meant as the sincerest of plaudits. Johnson has constructed a tightly plotted, superbly acted “escape room” for both his characters and the audience to explore and puzzle over. Most will find the two hours and 10 minutes it takes to solve well worth the price of admission.
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans
Release Date: November 27, 2019
Michael Burgin is the Movies Editor for Paste.