At the start of writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a famed mystery novelist (played by Christopher Plummer) has been murdered and everyone in his family is a suspect. A pair of detectives (played by LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a wild card crime solver (played by Daniel Craig) interrogate each family member and learn that nearly all of them had a reason for killing their patriarch.
I kept waiting for Johnson to turn the mystery genre on its head, as all the ingredients of a great Agatha Christie yarn are on hand: a terrific cast embodying colorful characters, a mansion setting that someone notes resembles the board game “Clue” and lots of weapons lying around. For a while, it seems like the filmmaker is going to turn on his audience and upend expectations, the way The Cabin in the Woods reconfigured horror movies. Actually – and this isn’t a spoiler – Knives Out is less a mystery/thriller and more an examination of class differences. Specifically, how a family of rich, white, and spoiled hangers-on mistreat and overlook those who are not them. Some of the dialogue is especially timely, making this fit somewhere between social commentary and an up-to-the-minute satire disguised a mainstream studio film.
Everyone in the well-assembled cast is good at giving Murderer Face. You know exactly what this is: It’s when the detective says, “One of you is the murderer…” and the camera pans around to the cast, lingering on the shifting eyes and nervous looks they share among them.
As he proved in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Craig is a good sport and game at trying broad comedy but he’s too heavy handed an actor to pull it off. I liked what he does here but you can see him working too hard.
Far better is Ana De Armas, who steals the film entirely. While she has been cast alongside Craig in the new 007 thriller, No Time To Die (opening in April) and had a striking supporting turn in Blade Runner 2049 (as Ryan Gosling’s love interest) this is her true breakout role.
Jamie Lee Curtis has played so many likable women for so long, it’s a pleasure to watch her portray such an unpleasant character. She’s well matched by an excellent Don Johnson (as her gregarious husband), a restrained Michael Shannon, and the always-welcome Toni Collette (nailing a California dialect). The weak link is Chris Evans: Whether playing a snide rich twerp here or telling the Avengers to assemble, Evans remains one of our most lightweight actors.
The biggest pleasure of Knives Out are its old school thrills and classical presentation. Even when it overreaches, the dialogue is peppered with wit and the closing scenes are extremely satisfying. This is a dialogue-heavy, character-driven film, intended for grown-ups or anyone willing to partake in Johnson’s careful cinematic puzzle building. While some of this is stagey, the inciting incident, powered by a great scene between Plummer and De Armas, is perfectly executed. So is a carefully set up gag involving a knife.
Speaking of knives, there’s a great artwork on hand, in which all kinds of sharp weapons are arranged in a threatening, circular presentation: Johnson is wise to frame many of his scenes against this prop.
For all the digs Johnson gets in at the 1 percent, his clever screenplay is, in reflection, quite simple. The word “slight” is an unkind way to describe most movies but I would label this one that way. Although I enjoyed the performances from the ensemble cast and the busy inner workings of the tale, this isn’t the kind of movie worth seeing more than once. It’s the kind of movie I’ll likely have trouble remembering I saw a year from now.
Knives Out starts strong, drags a bit, then ends on a very high note. It will likely be best remembered less for its whodunit plot and more for what it says about 2019.
Two and a Half Stars
Rated PG-13/130 Min.