Knives Out is a sharp take on the classic whodunnit

Rian Johnson updates and fine-tunes the classic murder-mystery structure in his delightful, all-star new film.

Knives Out, an intensely pleasurable film experience, feels like an anomaly in the current American cinematic landscape. It’s an original story, treated cleverly and with a sense of humour. It’s politically engaged without indulging in cheap hashtag moralism and treats the intersection of wealth, class and race with some nuance. Above all, Knives Out tests the limits of the murder-mystery genre with freshness and excitement.

The morning after his birthday celebration, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study. This inciting incident spurs an investigation into the family, which unearths a complex web of rivalries, grudges and motives. The only non-family member under investigation is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and confidante, who emerges as the film’s protagonist. 

In a classic whodunit mode, Knives Out’s appeal rests heavily on its all-star cast of eccentric, larger-than-life characters. Christopher Plummer and Ana de Armas serve as the film’s moral and emotional backbone, bringing humanity and naturalism to their performances. Their friendship doesn’t just feel written; it feels experienced.

Beyond them, the rest of the cast steps up into more expected (but no less fabulous) Agatha Christie-esque over-the-topness. With drastically different temperaments and ambitions, each character has motives to undermine their late father’s wishes and gain from his enormous fortune. Nearly everyone shines as they step up to play ridiculous but no-less human incarnations of vicious murder mystery stereotypes. An all-star cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette and Chris Evans brings its A-game, managing a fine-tuned balance so that no single personality overshadows the rest of the film. 

On the investigative side, Daniel Craig plays Southern detective Benoit Blanc, who has been anonymously hired to investigate Harlan’s death. His investigation is two-fold: find out who killed Harlan and to figure out who hired him. Craig, who seems older but no less charming than he does in his Bond films, brings a calibrated glamour to the role. Despite distracting echoes of Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards drawl, the magnitude of his presence feels like the birth of a new all-star detective in the mould of Columbo or Hercule Poirot. 

As far as artistry, the film has a brisk pace and opulent production design. The Thrombey family mansion feels like a series of fabulous cliches about what the home of an indecently wealthy mystery writer would look like: it is lush and maximalist.  In the spirit of the playfulness of murder mystery writing, the house conceals secrets and visual double-entendres. The montage style is brisk and smart. While over two-hours, the film rarely feels its length as it continually sets the audience on new adventures and twists in perception. 

Ideologically, the movie explores the nature of wealth in the American experience. There are numerous references to the characters being “self-made,” in spite of being born into the upper echelons of the 1 per cent. The question of money becomes quickly intertwined with issues of entitlement, as Harlan’s death initiates a heated fight over his enormous inheritance. The movie’s playfulness extends being plot-twists and character-turns and into how it spins American values on their head. What does it mean to earn or inherit a fortune?

American entertainment cinema is not particularly suited to in-depth critiques of capitalism, but considering that, Knives Out has a nuanced and even refreshing take on class and wealth divisions. With comedy and through genre, it deconstructs common stereotypes and perceptions. While the rich in the movie are out of touch and villainous, they don’t lose their humanity. Their motives are humble, in a sense; they’re human and relatable (if not wholly selfish) but scaled to the point of absurdity. 

The heart of Knives Out seems to question fundamental social values. What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to be a success? Does the billionaire work harder than his nurse or his housekeeper? The movie addresses the myths and illusions that surround enormous hoarded wealth through the same games central to the mystery. Once the curtain of lies and deception are pulled back, the reality might tell a very different picture.

There are few films this year that are as fun and engaging as Knives Out. It is a compelling mystery filled with strange characters and strong ideas. Fans of the genre will enjoy the way he subverts and parodies expectations, and even guessing the final twist will do little to diminish the film’s impact. It’s increasingly rare that a Hollywood movie could be so indulgent and yet thoughtful, an incredible big-screen experience that plays beautifully with a crowd. ■

Knives Out opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Nov. 27. Watch the trailer here: