An Agatha Christie-style whodunnit for the Trump age
The murder-mystery story, where a clever detective seeks out clues and eliminates suspects until a guilty perpetrator is identified, is a familiar and beloved genre. It's also a genre that's quite silly and ripe for parody. So we have Rian Johnson's Knives Out, which while gently skewering all those Agatha Christie stories, also manages to express genuine affection for the genre. And serves up a near-impossible mystery of its own to unravel.
The case involves mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) who has sold millions of books, lives alone in a giant mansion in the country and financially supports much of his family. The morning after his 85th birthday party, a housekeeper finds Harlan very dead in his study. There's a lot of blood and a knife in his hand. Local police are quick to call it a suicide.
A routine investigation follows. But the inquiry gets decidedly strange when a gentlemanly Southern private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows up. An anonymous benefactor has procured Blanc's services to investigate Harlan's death believing that the author was slain. So the cops, with Blanc looking on, corral the Thrombey family and question them about the events leading up to Harlan's death.
And it's quite a family. There's daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, who says she's a successful, self-made businesswoman (Harlan gave her a million dollars to start the business) and her idiotic husband played by Don Johnson. There's Harlan's son Michael Shannon, who lives off his dad's coattails as his publisher, and who has a son who is an alt-right internet troll. There's also Harlan's daughter-in-law Toni Collette, who espouses new-age wisdom while secretly stealing thousands from Harlan's bank account.
Harlan's nurse Marta, played by Ana de Armas, is a key player and was closer to Harlan than anyone in his actual family. Much of the film revolves around Marta, who comes from an immigrant family (an ongoing gag is that the Thrombey family have no idea which South American country she comes from, despite all professing how much she is part of the family). Blanc takes on the investigation of Harlan's death exposing the secrets of the Thrombey clan and what ultimately happened to Harlan.
Knives Out is devilishly good fun. The all-star cast is having a ball. Daniel Craig's Southern drawl is startling at first but his performance as detective Blanc is a major highlight, especially when he goes a bit loopy towards the end of the film. Ana de Armas as Marta also shines, despite her performance being more adamant and played less for laughs. Toni Collette is the funniest of Thrombey's family, she's liberal and tolerant and professes wisdom but is ultimately simple (she knows Blanc from seeing a tweet about a New Yorker article about him).
The cast has much to work with. The plot twists and turns to a conclusion that's surprising and satisfying, all while the film is affectionately making fun of itself and the entire genre. The laughs could be more plentiful and more cutting, but there's a little too much love here for wholesale pillorying of the murder-mystery format. But it doesn't matter, Knives Out is still fun and worth your time.