The ‘game is afoot’ in the year’s sharpest, funniest, most entertaining movie puzzle
Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson & Toni Collette
Directed by Rian Johnson
Somebody’s dead, it looks like a murder, and everyone’s a suspect.
That’s been the setup and the starting line for many a movie, and sure enough, that’s how this one begins. But this insanely clever, thoroughly original all-star caper is full of razor-sharp surprises, and not the least are its wily, witty twists on the murder-mystery format.
For starters, we find out the “who” in the whodunit pretty early on—but, as you might expect, almost nothing in Knives Out is what, or how, you think it is. And the “who” is only the beginning of an even bigger mystery.
Daniel Craig trades his dapper James Bond British cool for a big ol’ slice of Southern-fried country ham to play Benoit (Ben-wah) Blanc, a private detective hired (but by whom?) to investigate the mysterious death of a wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, who reappears repeatedly in flashbacks). Thrombey was found one morning a week ago by his housekeeper (Edi Patterson), bled out in his bed, his throat slit with a blade in his hand.
Was it suicide…or was it murder?
“Everyone can lie,” says Blanc, often wrapping his loquacious drawl around puffs of a cigar. “Well, almost everyone.” He’s referring to Thrombey’s longtime caretaker and confidante, Marta (Ana de Armas), whom Blanc discovers has a “regurgitative reaction to mis-truthin’.” In other words, when Marta lies, she throws up.
Blanc and Marta—a puke-prone lie detector—become the movie’s central axis around which it spins the rest of its delightfully prickly tale, but to reveal much more would give far too much away. (It is nice to see Craig and de Armas working together in a preview of their next team-up, in April’s No Time to Die, the 25th official James Bond film.)
This is the kind of movie where you need to pay close attention to everything—everything everyone says, everything that happens, and everything you see. Chances are, it will all come back around. Like the big coffee mug in the foreground of the opening shot—“My House, My Rules,” it reads. It may seem like just a cutesy coffee mug, but you’ll see it again, and it will mean something even…more.
You could call this a “family” film, in a way—because writer/director Rian Johnson (whose impressive resume includes the blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the sci-fi mind-bender Looper and several TV episodes of Breaking Bad) has made everyone in Harlan Thrombey’s family a possible accomplice to his murder, naturally. Or at least they get drawn, in some way or another, into its tangled web, as Blanc and a pair of police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) spend days conducting probing interviews and combing through Thrombey’s maze-like country manor, full of hidden stairways, secret doors and promotional-oddity props—like a massive throne of blades—commemorating his murder-mystery novels. “Look around: This guy practically lived in a Clue board,” says one of the cops.
Everyone in the big, bright ensemble cast seems to be having a ball playing squabbling siblings, imploding in-laws and grousing grandkids. Jamie Lee Curtis is Thrombey’s real-estate mogul daughter, Linda, who remembers how fond her father used to be of writing cryptic notes and engaging her in games. Don Johnson is her husband, Richard, and the father of Ransom (Chris Evans), a slick, jaded playboy—and the only family member who skipped the funeral. Michael Shannon is Thrombey’s youngest son, Walt, steamed that his dad never gave him control of his $60 million publishing empire. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is a hippy-dippy lifestyle guru; her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), was getting her substantial college’s expenses funded by Thrombey’s monthly checks. Everyone thinks grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is a weirdo, if not a neo-Nazi internet troll.
Almost everyone, Blanc finds, seems to have some kind of axe to grind, a secret to hide, some sort of reason they might conceivably have for wanting a piece of Harlan Thrombey’s sizeable fortune.
And when they all come together with the family attorney (Frank Oz) for the reading of Harlan’s will, that’s when the knives really come out.
Blanc seems so close to solving the mystery, but something about it continually baffles him. All the pieces are there, but something is missing; something just doesn’t fit. “A strange case,” he tells Marta. “A case with a hole in the middle—a doughnut.” At one point, even the doughnut hole seems to have another doughnut, with another doughnut hole, inside it.
Knives Out is great, galloping, fast-paced fun, and it harkens back to classic murder-mystery tropes that stretch across the decades. But it also launches a timely, pointed contemporary message in Marta’s character and her immigrant family, which becomes an important subplot—and a running gag of scathing social commentary as the Thrombeys, who claim to love Marta as one of their own, can’t ever recall which South American country she’s from. Is it Uruguay? Or Paraguay, or Brazil?
One scene offers a telling glimpse of a rerun of Angela Lansbury in the 1980s TV series Murder: She Wrote, overdubbed in Spanish. This is a movie that has quite a bit more than just murder and mystery on its mind.
“The game is afoot,” says Blanc, clearly relishing the challenge of digging into the Thrombey puzzle. You’ll relish it, too. The most entertaining movie puzzle of the year, it’s also a film with some of the sharpest edges where you least expect them.
And like the coffee mug suggests, it plays by its own rules. Whodunit? Oh, you’ll find out. But you’ll have even more fun filling in the doughnut holes.
In theaters Wed., Nov. 27, 2019