Written and Directed by Rian Johnson | 130 min | Amazon Prime
Bravo, Mr Johnson! The American auteur has shown he’s a clever storyteller every time he’s gone to bat: the teen noir Brick, the con-men hijinks of Brothers Bloom, the time travel twists in Looper, even the flawed-but-dynamic Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But here he’s topped himself, constructing an entirely satisfying murder mystery, stuffing it full of stars, and tying them up in a perfect knot of jealousy, deceit, doughnut metaphor, and chuckles. He’s matched Agatha Christie, and he’s done it with a dollop of political subtext to ground it solidly in 2019.
Mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead, his throat slit, his body prone on the settee in his attic den. The cops (Noah Segan and LaKeith Stanfield) are speaking to the family, all of whom were in Harlan’s sprawling mansion the night before on the occasion of his 85th birthday—grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), son Walt (Michael Shannon), daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), daughter-in-law Donna (Riki Lindhome), daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford), and grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Oh, and housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), and the heart of the thing, Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas, from Blade Runner 2049). Marta may have been the last one to see him alive.
This looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide, but gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, really reaching for those Kentucky vowels) isn’t so sure. He’s been hired on as a consultant, and slowly figures out most of the immediate Thrombey family had motive to hate Harlan, maybe even kill him. But not Marta: She genuinely cared for the old fellow. Plus, she has a physiological reaction to untruths, which makes her entirely credible.
What’s great about this picture, and surprising about how it’s put together, is we think we know what really happened to Harlan by the end of the first act, but that’s when things just begin to get really interesting.
Maybe it’s because I don’t read enough mystery novels, but I’d genuinely forgotten these kinds of movies could still get made with this kind of quality. (And no, I don’t count the vapidly entertaining Murder On The Orient Express, nor even Clue, which is name-checked along with long running TV series Murder She Wrote.) The structure of the thing is satisfyingly lock-tight, the perfectly chosen cast all having a blast with the material—maybe no one more broadly than Craig, with de Armas a wonderfully earnest counterpoint. I don’t know that I’ve seen a movie this year that so knows exactly what it is, with the possible exception of Ford v Ferrari.
And about those dagger-jabs of relevance: Marta is hispanic, her mother an illegal, and there’s a running joke that none of the venal Thrombey clan can remember which South American country she’s actually from. A couple of the siblings are genuinely socially conservative, but a mid-movie revelation reveals all their true colours. In that the movie has things to say about classism and xenophobia writ large amongst America’s privileged whites, and foreshadows the forthcoming inevitable demographic changes in the United States, and makes the final denouement that much more satisfying.
Knives Out is an old-fashioned, high-end crowd-pleaser. Make sure to see it with an audience—it’s a hoot.