Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>Knives Out</i> at once revives and daringly subverts the old-school whodunit

Knives Out at once revives and daringly subverts the old-school whodunit

Benoit Blanc, the wonderfully Southern-fried private eye Daniel Craig plays to a hilt in Knives Out, has a way with words. When he opens his mouth, out spill metaphors and folksy aphorisms and eloquent turns of phrase, all delivered in an accent another character accurately pegs as decidedly Foghorn Leghorn. Blanc can work a room, but there are times when he seems to be speaking past everyone in it, to himself but also maybe directly to the audience. Take, for example, an early scene where he describes his methodology—a belief in following the arc of a case, in tracing its internal logic to the “terminus of gravity’s rainbow,” until the undeniable truth simply reveals itself. It sounds an awful lot like advice, frankly. Because when you’re watching a movie as intricately plotted, fiendishly clever, and confidently engineered as this one, maybe it’s best to leave the detective work to the professionals. The truth, as Blanc puts it, will reveal itself with time.

In Knives Out, some truths reveal themselves faster than others and much faster than expected, and that’s part of the film’s knotty, head-spinning charm. From case open to closed, this may be the year’s purest blast of Hollywood fun: an almost absurdly satisfying mystery yarn, rippling with suspense, humming with humor, and populated by a bunch of stars having an absolute ball bringing to life the game pieces on a giant Clue board. Yet the movie is also, simultaneously, a whip-smart subversion, as unpredictable in structure as it is in resolution. Such tightrope acts are fast becoming a specialty of writer-director Rian Johnson. His last assignment was in the galaxy far, far away, incensing overprotective fans with a space opera that dared to toss over its shoulder some sacred Jedi business—along with our assumptions—without withholding any of the requisite lightsaber, dogfight spectacle. Here, toying with the rules only fortifies the mystery. What better way to keep us guessing than to shuffle the standard protocol of an unfurling investigation?

The filmmaker has dabbled before in the gumshoe trade. His first feature, Brick, transported the twists, turns, and hard-boiled vernacular of noir to a suburban high school. With Knives Out, he drifts out of Sam Spade’s jurisdiction and into Hercule Poirot’s with something so old-fashioned it’s almost anachronistic: a star-studded whodunit. The setup is classic Agatha Christie. A bestselling mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found dead in his sprawling Massachusetts mansion, victim of an apparently self-inflicted throat wound. Apparently because Blanc, accompanying a detective (LaKeith Stanfield) and a state trooper (Noah Segan) to the scene of the crime, smells foul play. And he’s got a whole accusing parlor of conniving, squabbling, moneyed relatives to question, each with their own plausible reason to off the old man.

We meet, in short order, every member of the freeloading Thrombey clan. There’s Harlan’s daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a ruthless entrepreneur who’s built her own business from daddy’s investment; she’s married to the untrustworthy Richard (Don Johnson) and mother to the smirking, trust-fund playboy Ransom (Chris Evans). There’s Harlan’s runt-of-the-litter son Walt (Michael Shannon), entrusted with the management of the publishing house; he has a wife, Donna (Riki Lindhome), and an alt-right shit-poster of a son (It’s Jaeden Martell) who may be Johnson’s amusing swipe at the impotent trolls that have haunted his mentions since The Last Jedi. Rounding out the relative pool is daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a New Age flake who’s been living off the family dime in the years since her husband, Harlan’s other son, passed away. In addition to funding her skin-care business, the author-mogul had been paying the college tuition of Joni’s daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford).

Johnson introduces these suspects in a hilarious, crosscutting interrogation set piece. He also lays out the layout of the manor, the timeline of Harlan’s 85th birthday party (he’s found in a pool of blood the morning after), and the tangled web of motives—whole pages of exposition, brilliantly masked by the screwball zing of his editing and dialogue. The audience is left primed to play armchair detective alongside Blanc, but just as quickly as he arranges the pieces on the board, Johnson scatters them, dropping a reveal that seems to change the game just as we’ve learned its rules. It’s a trick Knives Out will pull again and again, reinventing itself on the fly, throwing curveballs of new information, even complicating our desire to see the case solved. Johnson has the uncanny ability to indulge and upend a cliché at once. There is, for instance, a car chase that ends with an inspired acknowledgment of its pointlessness.

Illustration for article titled Knives Out at once revives and daringly subverts the old-school whodunit
Photo: Lionsgate

A conscience eventually emerges at the center of the film’s den of vipers. It belongs to Marta (Ana de Armas of Blade Runner 2049), Harlan’s nurse and confidant. In sharp contrast to the sniping narcissism of the extended Thrombey clan, she’s presented as someone so kind and honest that she can’t tell a lie without vomiting—a condition both the movie and the detective milks for all it’s worth. Blanc, of course, suspects that this quiet woman, who had eyes and ears within the house, may know more than she’s letting on. The detective could also be a total fraud—one of the many delights of Knives Out is how it keeps us guessing even at the competence of its central lawman, sniffing for answers that the movie sometimes provides us much further in advance. But beyond her role in the labyrinth of clues and red herrings, Marta is integral to Johnson’s withering class critique, another updated element from the Agatha Christie playbook. That she’s the daughter of undocumented immigrants is not incidental; it informs how she’s treated by a family whose generosity and compassion are as false as its claim to self-made success.

Even at its most pointed, Knives Out keeps the pleasures coming. The Thrombeys may be rotten representatives of a spoiled national character, but they’re still broadly venomous good company, hurling one-liners (“I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you”) across the opulent sets. The ensemble is uniformly terrific, with Johnson harnessing the essential qualities of some of his stars—like Plummer, perfectly utilized as a man of mischief and principle—while casting others diabolically against type. (It’s very entertaining, for example, to see Shannon go so weak-willed and Evans subvert his square-jawed Captain America image, though Bong Joon Ho got there first.) The director’s niftiest trick is fulfilling a quota of genre payoffs even as he takes a roundabout path to them. But his masterstroke is identifying a greater stake than identifying the who that done it. Far from empty sleight-of-hand, Knives Out twists its borrowed, rearranged mechanics into a timely, sincere, and ultimately moving celebration of decency in the face of moral failure. To paraphrase one of Blanc’s funnier musings, that’s the donut within the donut hole.