Campy comedy in whodunit genre has a star-studded cast
In his brief but notable career as a film writer-director, Rian Johnson’s signature has been taking familiar genres and styles and upping the ante in some clever way. Brick (2005) re-imagined the tropes of film noir by setting the action in high school. Looper (2012) slammed together time-travelling sci-fi and gangster movies. Even his take on the Stars Wars universe in The Last Jedi (2017) felt both reverential and somehow fresh.
In Knives Out, Johnson’s offbeat approach takes the well-worn rhythm of the parlor whodunit and ramps it up with an all-star cast giving eccentric, intentionally overblown performances and a sly script with abundant droll comedy. It is not a solemn exercise in intrigue like the recent Murder on the Orient Express, nor a frenetic parody like Clue. Instead, it is a genuine suspense film, but one where everyone has his or her tongue resolutely in cheek.
The setting is a familiar one for fans of the genre: the stately if a tad peculiar home of a highly successful mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). After the patriarch’s shocking suicide, the family has gathered in part to share their grief but more to collect their share of the lucrative estate.
Of course, the family includes all of the requisite archetypes: Linda, the bitter, resolute eldest daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis); Walt (Michael Shannon), the under-achieving son; Joni, the needy daughter-in-law (Toni Collette); and Ransom, the dashing but dissipated grandson (Chris Evans). Throw in a few more colorful relatives and hangers-on, plus a couple of devoted, maybe too devoted staff, and you have the perfect mix of family dysfunction with all the knives out. Humorously, Johnson makes his intentionally clichéd title (and theme) quite literal by installing a chair made mostly of knives in the center of the house’s parlor.
Into this den of familial vipers comes Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), an enigmatic private detective, with the local police in tow. The presumed suicide is now being re-investigated as a murder. In his marble-mouthed Southern drawl, Blanc suspects “fawwwl play.” The rest of the film—with a full buffet of felonious motives and reliably numerous red herrings—plays out in delightfully campy style with the talented cast clearly having a great time and bringing the audience along gleefully.
The actors are uniformly excellent in their ratcheted-up performances. I particularly enjoyed Evans (who was so upstanding as Captain America) as the irreverent grandson, and Collette as the twitchy Joni. Daniel Craig, who jumpstarted the 007 franchise with his blunt, grim portrayal of Bond, has recently broken away from that signature role with some surprisingly comic and American characters. Craig was amusing as an enterprising ex-con explosives expert in Logan Lucky, and he delights again here as Blanc.
Johnson’s intent in this movie is not profound; he aspires only to entertain. But he achieves that exceedingly well. Knives Out is a refreshing and amusing twist, delivering equal measures of thrills and laughs.
Knives Out: 4 out of 5 stars
Coming in December: The Banker, drama with Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, and Nia Long, Dec. 6; Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler in a rare serious role, Dec. 13; the end of an era with the final Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Dec. 18; Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron star in Bombshell, a drama exploring the fall of Fox News’ Roger Ailes, Dec. 20; and Director Greta Gerwig’s update of Little Women, Dec. 25.