Rian Johnson works in the precise art of cinematic surprise. One of the great, under-appreciated joys of sitting in that dark room looking up at that bright screen is its ability to surprise us, and Johnson relishes the opportunity to leverage that power like a magician. It makes sense, then, that the notion of magic has played a prominent role in his filmography to this point – from sleight-of-hand to mentalism to even the dueling powers of the Jedi and the Force. No shock, either, that part of Johnson’s magic is his massaging of genre tropes in ways that seem both reverent and subversive, baiting the audience by providing a healthy dose of what we expect and then pulling the switch by throwing in one wrinkle after another. It’s a joy to behold, made even better because it’s clear Johnson is having just as much fun as we are.
That joy is all over Knives Out, which plays like a cinematic smile from beginning to end – sometimes wry, sometimes devilish, sometimes beaming. It’s a flex of every creative muscle Johnson possesses, fusing genres with ease, orchestrating tone like a maestro, playing the audience members without disrespecting them. The film takes the form of a classic Whodunit, though one with sequences of taut suspense, jolts of horror, and even noir-ish accents. Yet in its bones, this is a comedy of manners – as in, people who think they are mannered but are, in fact, total buffoons.
It’s impossible not to recognize the explicit influence of Agatha Christie on this premise: an expansive cast of obviously suspect individuals gathers at a stately manner as a crack detective figures out the culprit. In Knives Out, however, the inherent stuffiness of the premise is constantly mocked in ways both subtle and overt, and the brewing class struggle between the characters is so deftly updated for our present political nightmare that only impulse will determine if the viewer cackles or cringes with recognition – and the film would welcome both. At the center of the intrigue is the impossibly wealthy Thrombey family, who are gathered at the family’s grand estate in the wake of patriarch and legendary murder mystery author Harlan’s (Christopher Plummer) mysterious death. They’re all status obsessed money-grubbers to varying degrees, from eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and husband Richard (Don Johnson), whose son Ransom (Chris Evans), is the hot-shot black sheep of the clan; to loopy daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), widow of the middle son, who has lingered on the promise of ongoing subsidization; to youngest son (Michael Shannon), who believes himself the rightful heir to the family’s publishing throne despite lacking even a shred of knowledge about the business. It’s a family that coasts on the image of an empire, living high on reputation and leaning on nepotism as a career path, touting themselves as “self-made” while privately begging for another handout.
The family has an interesting relationship with their late father’s personal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) – which is to say, they view her as a sub-human servant. “I’m sorry you weren’t invited to the funeral,” several of them tell Marta. “I was out-voted.” The distinct “Othering” of Marta is the family’s most thinly disguised prejudice, if for no other reason than they can’t ever seem to figure out her actual nationality (Uruguayan? Ecuadorian? Brazilian?). Marta is, of course, the direct opposite of the Thrombeys – an immigrant who works tirelessly to support her undocumented mother. That social divide leads the family to eye Marta as a key suspect, though in peak Whodunit fashion, literally everyone has a motive for offing Harlan. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a famous private detective with an archly intimidating manner and a ridiculous Southern drawl, to interrogate the subjects, survey the scene, and put all the pieces together.
This big and brilliant cast has a ball portraying very particular types of sleazy rich morons, and Craig relishes the opportunity to ditch the brood and go full-tilt as this alliterative Poirot-ian goof who is the only one capable of making sense of their mess. As for the plot, not much can, or should, be said – a wonderful feature of this screenplay is how little can be discussed without accidentally slipping into spoiler territory, for it’s not one that pulls its punches for one big twist at the end. Instead, the surprises reveal themselves gradually, the narrative slowly peeling back its layers one at a time, deepening the intrigue because we question whether each new revelation will be upended by the next. The guessing never ends – it’s a devilish game Johnson is playing, and we are happy to go right along. The atmosphere is charged with clues both verbally and visually, from obvious hints to Hitchcockian MacGuffins, making repeat viewings a necessary pleasure. Knives Out is a doozy of a magic trick from Rian Johnson, and it’s impossible not to fall for it.