On the one hand, I wish Rian Johnson were directing the new Star Wars installment after the job he did on The Last Jedi. On the other hand, if he were doing that, we wouldn’t have the Thanksgiving feast of a murder mystery comedy, Knives Out. One thing that has been lost in Hollywood’s push for blockbuster franchises is the murder mystery, to the point where we have to accept flawed substitutes like Murder on the Orient Express. However, Johnson shows us that as long as he’s around, this isn’t a lost art.
The movie begins at the Gothic mansion of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a world-famous mystery novelist who’s found with his throat slit shortly after a family gathering celebrating his 85th birthday. While the death seems to be a clear-cut suicide, similarly famous private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by a client unknown even to him to investigate Harlan’s death alongside the police. He homes in on Harlan’s personal nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who has a medical condition that prevents her from lying — yeah, long story — and proves to be a fount of information about the Thrombey clan. The beloved paterfamilias was blackmailing his philandering son-in-law (Don Johnson), as well as planning to cut off his allowance to his daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and fire his son (Michael Shannon) from the family business. Blanc suspects evil afoot.
As someone who eats up detective fiction in all forms, I’m rarely surprised by the twists and revelations in mystery films, but this one left me racing to keep up. Throwaway details wind up having grave implications, while leads present themselves to the detectives only to promptly snuff themselves out. Marta receives a blackmail letter, then finds the evidence burnt up in a fire at the crime lab and the blackmailer rudely taken out of commission. “This case has a hole at the center,” Blanc says. “A donut! I thought your story would be the donut hole in the donut’s hole, but now I see that there is a hole in the middle of the donut hole! Or perhaps it’s actually just a very small donut.”
Blanc is given to uttering such self-aggrandizing, self-dramatizing, self-everythinging pronouncements in his thick-as-Nawlins-gumbo accent. The gentleman sleuth is a fun character, carrying himself like he’s smarter than the other people in the room put together and displaying myriad attention-seeking behavioral tics. No wonder one character compares him to Foghorn Leghorn. The backbiting Thrombeys are a detestable group — half of them are rich, entitled political conservatives, but even the liberal half is OK with holding Marta’s immigration status hostage and threatening her family with deportation, though no one is sure which South American country she’s from. As for Marta, she’s the only member of the household who can beat Harlan in a game of Go, which tells you that she’s no ordinary nurse.
LaKeith Stanfield is wasted as the lead police detective on the case, but otherwise, this deluxe cast is used efficiently. Plummer nabs a showpiece scene during Harlan’s final minutes, when he knows death is coming and frantically engineers things so the investigators find out what he wants them to. Chris Evans steals scenes as Harlan’s contemptuous fey grandson — he’s more interesting when he plays unheroic roles like the scuzzy contract killer in The Iceman or the tormented antihero of Snowpiercer, and he has a great time playing a real bastard. Noah Segan (a recurring presence in Johnson’s films) turns up as a state trooper who fanboys all over himself in his favorite writer’s house.
The script is full of references to both fictional pop culture (i.e. Thrombey’s books) and real stuff (Hamilton, The Ring), all of which plays well. Harlan Thrombey’s name comes from the title of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which both the filmmaker and I are of an age to remember. I like the way Johnson engineers things so that Marta comes through this by being the only suspect who doesn’t act with total self-interest. Earlier, I mentioned how overlooked details come to the fore with a vengeance here, but they also sometimes simply pay off fantastic jokes. The opening shot of the film is of Harlan’s coffee mug (which reads, “My House, My Rules, My Coffee”), and it comes back in maybe the most satisfying and certainly the funniest closing shot of this year’s movies.
Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and Chris Evans. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated PG-13.