How I wish I had managed to catch an advance screening of Rian Johnson’s new feature Knives Out! Then I could have alerted Almanac readers a week earlier to a fabulous opportunity for something to do with visiting relatives over the long holiday weekend: Say, batting your eyelashes all innocently, “Hey, let’s go catch a movie!” to that racist uncle who made you listen to him pontificate about how “Our ancestors immigrated here legally” over Thanksgiving dinner. Let him hear how absurd that rant sounds, coming pitch-perfect out of the mouth of one of the obnoxious nouveau-riche Thrombey clan (in this case, son-in-law Richard, played by Don Johnson). It would’ve been a juicy moment.
Never mind; you’ll find that juicy moments abound in this movie, regardless of what company you keep while taking it in. A loving homage to all the classic whodunits that have gone before (especially in the Agatha Christie mode), Knives Out addresses the problem of every possible plot twist having already been used at least once by introducing a topical subtext of class warfare and anti-immigrant bias. It’s not mere PC window-dressing; it drives the plot in ways that can’t be ignored, and it makes this otherwise-conventional murder mystery a tale that’s truly of and for our times.
The setup is one we’ve certainly seen before: A wealthy man of advanced age invites his grasping relatives to his morbid-bric-a-brac-filled mansion for a party, and in the course of the evening, at least one of his presumed heirs finds out something about his or her inheritance that is not to his or her advantage. By morning, the old man is dead. The bumbling police inspectors declare it a suicide. Everyone on the scene has a motive for murder, and everyone has an alibi, some flimsier than others.
Enter the brilliant private investigator, who doesn’t even know who hired him. Benoit Blanc is portrayed with great glee and a thick Deep South accent by Daniel Craig. Presumably the director, who also wrote the screenplay, wanted to make sure that viewers didn’t think they were watching James Bond, and he gives Craig license to wallow in a geographically unplaceable drawl as Blanc waxes philosophical about his pursuit of the truth. It’s not the worst-ever effort of a talented British actor at replicating an American regional dialect (I’d hand those wilted laurels to Tom Wilkinson as LBJ in Selma), but when one of the Thrombey scions accuses Blanc of doing a Foghorn Leghorn impression, he pretty much nails it.
Craig isn’t the only actor here who seems to be having altogether too much fun in Knives Out. Christopher Plummer – whom we see mainly in flashbacks of the night of the crime from various points of view, since his character dies almost immediately – is delicious as Harlan Thrombey, who made his fortune writing extremely popular mystery novels and therefore tends to stay a step or two ahead of his scheming relatives. Jamie Lee Curtis plays his daughter Linda, who’s in real estate and married to the abovementioned Richard; Chris Evans is their playboy son who goes by his middle name, Ransom. Widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) makes no discernible living as a “lifestyle guru” and has a “woke” daughter in college, Meg (Katherine Langford). Younger son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs a publishing empire fueled entirely by Harlan’s best-sellers; he and wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) have a teenaged son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), who’s a full-time Internet troll of the 4Chan variety. Harlan’s offspring are so awful – blithely describing themselves as “self-made” despite their obvious dependence on the paterfamilias who set them up in business – that we seem to be headed for an “everybodydunit” denouement, as in Murder on the Orient Express. It’s nothing so simple, of course.
Harlan’s ancient, doddering, seemingly oblivious mother Wanetta (K Callan) is also on the scene. Then there are the household staff: Fran (Edi Patterson), the housekeeper who discovers the corpse, and Marta (Ana de Armas), the dedicated Latina nurse who has long taken care of Harlan, administered his meds and become his confidante. It’s a running joke that all of the younger Thrombeys have different notions of her country of origin, and they treat her like a maid. Rounding out the cast (aside from cameos by Frank Oz and M. Emmet Walsh) are the two cops: Noah Segan gets some funny moments as the goofy sidekick who’s a mystery-novel fanboy, but Lakeith Stanfield, who was such a delight as the lead character in Sorry to Bother You, is largely wasted as the straight man of the duo. That’s part of the price one pays with such a large acting ensemble: Not every character gets a chance to shine. Much more could have been done with the alt-right grandson, for example. Overall, we get it that this family is a nest of vipers, shining examples of contemporary white privilege at its smuggest and most hypocritical.
The breakout role here belongs to de Armas, whom Blanc immediately identifies as his trustworthy key to reconstructing what he presumes is a murder. Most conveniently (and this is Rian Johnson’s least plausible narrative ploy), Marta is a sort of human lie detector. Due to some past trauma, she cannot lie, or knowingly listen to someone else do so, without vomiting. That doesn’t mean that she has no secrets of her own – including the fact that her mother is an undocumented immigrant who could be exposed by someone who wants to manipulate Marta. Thus the plot thickens.
To say much more would spoil the abundant fun of Knives Out. Visually witty and stylish to match the cleverly twisty, snark-laden script, it’s one of the most enjoyable romps to hit the big screen this whole year. And it might even give that racist uncle some incentive to rethink his assumptions about brown people who are new to America.