What a kick to watch whip-smart director Rian Johnson shake the cobwebs off the whodunit genre and make it snap to stylish, wickedly entertaining life for a new generation. That’s what happens in Knives Out, a mystery that takes the piss out of Agatha Christie clichés. Johnson has experience with a large cast (see Star Wars: The Last Jedi). And he has a blast fooling us about who killed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) on his 85th birthday, his throat slit with a dagger by his side. Suicide or murder?
That’s the cue for suave Detective Benoit Blanc — love the name, love the Southern drawl and the devilry of Daniel Craig who plays him — to round up the usual suspects at the author’s gothic country estate. Blanc, profiled in the New Yorker as “The Last of the Gentlemen Sleuths,” doesn’t know who hired him. But he’s on the case and determined to get the facts. Craig looks delighted to be liberated from the shackles of cool that come with playing James Bond, and his joy in letting himself go in the role of the Blanc is contagious.
The detective’s suspicions falls first on Thrombey’s creepy, dysfunctional family, played by an all-star cast of shameless scene stealers. Jamie Lee Curtis is a scream as Linda, the daughter who gives an acid-tongued lashing to anyone in her line of fire, especially her skirt-chasing husband Richard (Don Johnson, doing roguish charm with just right hint of menace). Michael Shannon puts on a meek act as Walt, the son who runs Thrombey’s publishing empire now that his controlling daddy is no more. And what of Joni (an irresistibly cagey Toni Collette), the wife of Thrombey’s late son — she ran a failing lifestyle scam until the old man cut off her cash flow. Best of all is Chris Evans, who gets the most laughs as Ransom, the black-sheep son who thinks his whole family is guilty. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the virtuous Captain America point at each of his relatives and say, “Eat shit.”
There’s also two grandkids — Joni’s daughter, Meg (Catherine Langford), and Walt’s son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell) — fighting about Trump. The cops, headed by Lakeith Stanfield, try to implicate Thrombey’s young nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), an immigrant from Uruguay or Paraguay, no family member seems to remember which. They pay attention soon enough when Marta gets a big mention in the dead geezer’s will. But Blanc isn’t worried, since Marta can’t lie without throwing up the second a deceit escapes her lips. It’s a breakout role for de Armas, a Cuban actress (Blade Runner 2049) who flaunts knockout skills with a laugh line. She and Craig share a playful rapport which should work well when she shows up as a new Bond girl in No Time to Die.
Meanwhile, back at the mansion there’s a killer to catch. And if the plot gets too convoluted you can revel in the mansion itself, which production designer David Crank has filled with games, secret passageways, and a library that houses a wheel of knives. Back in 2006, Johnson directed Brick, an indie film noir set in a high school. Here, he’s up to his old tricks, only on a grander scale. Blanc just won’t stop poking around in noirish corners. Bless him. The butler didn’t do it, since the boss only employed a maid. So play detective, and see if you’re right. It’s all terrific, twisted fun that actually does keep you guessing until the deliciously slippery end.