You can tell that writer-director Rian Johnson is having fun again in Knives Out. I don’t want to presume that he didn’t enjoy himself while making The Last Jedi–after all, he’s only one of two directors since 2015 who made it through the process of helming a Star Wars film from start to finish–but certainly there was more pressure involved. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the toxic aftermath of that film’s release cast a certain retroactive pall over its making, as well as what he decided to make next.
But with Knives Out, Johnson is doing his own thing, unencumbered by expectations or canon, so it’s hardly a surprise that he’s gone back to where it all started for him: the murder mystery genre. Knives Out kicks off with the 85th birthday party of world famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose various children, grandchildren, associates, and other hanger-ons have gathered to celebrate in Thrombey’s vast, brooding, labyrinthine mansion. As you might expect, the stately home becomes a kind of character itself, or at least a mirror of its master’s mind.
In any event, poor Harlan won’t get to do it again for his 86th; following the party, he’s found dead in his top floor study of an apparent suicide. The investigating police officer (LaKeith Stanfield) is ready to wrap things up as quickly as possible, but he’s thwarted by another detective on the scene: Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a Southern gumshoe in the classic tradition who suspects there is more to the case than meets the eye–especially since he’s been hired by persons unknown to investigate the case and the Thrombey family.
As in all classic mysteries, nearly everyone in the family has their reasons for wanting Harlan dead. All seemingly except for his kindly caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas), who also happened to be the last person to see him alive. What follows is very much a whodunit in the traditional sense… until it isn’t.
Like his previous films, Johnson sets his story up using a long-established genre template before playing with its plot, its conventions, and its underlying themes. Don’t worry though: Knives Out has its share of social commentary about the haves and the have-nots, and about how wealth and privilege often don’t play nicely with compassion and empathy, but those ideas spring from the characters without making the viewer feel like he or she is watching a lecture. In fact, in some ways, the movie is almost too subtle: despite a fabulous, pointed closing shot, Knives Out doesn’t quite bow out with the resonance that Johnson may have wanted–you’ll have fun watching it but it might feel somewhat evanescent as soon as you leave the theater.
But for those two hours, this is an absolute blast. That is a tribute to not just Johnson’s surehanded writing and direction, but to the incredible cast he’s assembled to play the dysfunctional, vicious, complicated Thrombeys. Each and every one of them–including Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson (settling nicely into his elder statesman phase), Chris Evans (playing about as far away from Captain America as he can), Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette–just dig into the comedic meal that their director has laid out, clearly relishing the chance to cross verbal swords with each other and chow down on dialogue, scenarios and characterizations that are both well-trod and made fresh again.
The top standouts, however, in a cast full of them may be De Armas and Craig. The former is appealing, enigmatic, and sympathetic as the woman who is sort of the moral center of this little universe, while the latter is having the time of his life as the suave, effortlessly cool “gentleman detective” who is the latest in a long line of literary and cinematic predecessors. Rian Johnson has said that he wouldn’t mind exploring further adventures with Blanc, and if Knives Out is a hit, and Craig is up for it as he begins the post-James Bond portion of his career, we’d like to see that happen too.
So what are you waiting for? Go out and make Knives Out a hit… you’ll enjoy the hell out of it and wish there were more movies like this around.
Knives Out is out in theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 27.