by Andrew Wyatt on Nov 26, 2019

There is arguably no sub-genre quite as quaintly self-contained as the whodunit, both in terms of plot – its distilled version consists of little more than a dead body, a closed setting, and a gaggle of suspects – and in terms of its overall slightness. A well-oiled whodunit is a thing of beauty, to be sure, but more akin to a pearl-handled revolver than a Rembrandt painting: a functional object rendered graceful and ornate by nonpareil execution. The best-known examples of the form – almost all of them Agatha Christie adaptations, such as And Then There Were None (1945), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Death on the Nile (1978) – tend to be clever, star-studded little tchotchkes, eliciting a fleeting sensation of gratification but no lasting artistic impression. Occasionally, a high-concept take on the whodunit will make a splash, as in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s adaptation of the cat-and-mouse two-hander Sleuth (1972), Sidney Lumet’s version of the mind-screwy meta-mystery Deathtrap (1982), or Johnathan Lynn’s manic screwball cult phenomenon Clue (1985). In general, however, the genre has long languished near the bottom of the pop-pulp barrel in terms of respectability, its superficial cleverness offset by its grandmotherly fustiness and beach-read disposability.

All credit, then, to writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) for dragging the whodunit kicking and screaming into the 21st century with the sort of breezy glee that only an enthusiast of the genre could muster. Before he pivoted to science-fiction and fantasy, Johnson was a modernizer of retro mystery formulae, serving up Dashiell Hammett patter in the high-school neo-noir Brick (2005) and globe-trotting triple-crosses in the caper flick The Brothers Bloom (2008). However, the filmmaker’s latest feature, Knives Out, feels like a notable maturation of this irrepressible impulse to polish shopworn cinematic conventions. While Johnson’s newest film doesn’t attempt anything so ambitious as a rebellious deconstruction of the whodunit, it feels unmistakably like the work of a storyteller who discerned the cutting-edge potential in the genre’s creaky structure. Much as Steven Soderbergh did in his Southern-fried heist picture Logan Lucky (2017), Johnson embeds a zeitgeist-tapping urgency within Knives Out’s more simplistic, twisty pleasures. The film thereby delivers a lip-smacking fantasy of comeuppance that also smuggles a dose of authentic humanity underneath all the cartoonish squabbling, backbiting, and (literal) bloodletting.

Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer) is already dead when Knives Out opens, his body having been discovered in his attic study on the morning following his 85th birthday party. Thromby appears to have slit his own throat, but cagey local police investigator Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) has lingering concerns. To that end, he gathers the Thromby family and servants at Harlan’s sumptuous New England mansion shortly after the hasty funeral and re-interviews the lot of them. Also in attendance is flamboyant private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, with a self-consciously ludicrous Foghorn Leghorn accent), who has been retained by an anonymous client to turn his renowned deductive skills on the matter of the elder Thromby’s dubious demise.

This gives Johnson a pretext to portray the night of Harlan’s death from differing angles, Rashomon-style, as each member of the extended Thromby clan reiterates their plainly embellished, self-serving account of the birthday party and subsequent events. As is typically the case in these sorts of stories, several individuals seem to have a motive to have murdered Harlan. The novelist recently confronted his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) with evidence that he's been cheating on eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a successful real estate developer. Joni (Toni Collette), widow to Harlan’s deceased son Neil, had been caught skimming from the fund the author maintained for the education of her college-age daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). Ambitious youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), who has run Harlan’s publishing house for years, had just been given his walking papers by the old man, to the consternation of Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and adolescent son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), an alt-right troll in the Ben Shapiro mold. There are also a couple of wild cards and black sheep lurking about, including Harlan’s longtime maid Fran (Edi Patterson), his dementia-addled mother Wanetta (K Callan), and Richard and Linda’s crass, nogoodnik adult son Ransom (Chris Evans) – who stormed out of the party early and is therefore the only family member who is not a suspect.

Notwithstanding the misdirection (intentional or not) in the film’s marketing, the real hero of this tale is not the grandiose Blanc, but Harlan’s devoted and compulsively decent day nurse Marta Cabrera (a luminous Ana de Armas). That said, Craig’s Columbo-like sleuth quickly discerns that Marta will be crucial to unraveling the mystery of Harlan’s murder. Perhaps most immediately relevant to the investigation is Marta’s inability to tell lies without retching uncontrollably, which makes her something like a human polygraph machine. However, it also becomes apparent that Marta had become Harlan’s closest friend in his winter years, a kindly confidant (and worthy Go partner) to a man who had felt increasingly alienated from his selfish, dissolute, and bickering family.

Remarkably, all this information is presented in the first 30 minutes or so of Knives Out, with Johnson and editor Bob Ducsay briskly flitting back and forth between the interrogation of each family member and their (often embroidered) recollections of the night in question. This front-loading of the film’s sordid mysteries signals that the writer-director is up to something more convoluted than a straight whodunit, no matter how snugly the story initially seems to fit within the Christie-style “parlor investigation” mold. All whodunits must withhold information from the viewer to a certain extent, but Johnson tips his hand early to illustrate just how little the defining question of the genre – Who done it? – really matters to the story he’s telling.

Indeed, by the end of the first act, Johnson and his cast have already sent the plot corkscrewing off in the first of several unexpected directions. What makes Knives Out so outstanding and rewarding is that the filmmaker achieves this not by complicating an old-school paperback mystery with extra layers of baroque puzzle-box plotting – as Christopher Nolan might well have done with the same premise. Rather, Johnson prefers to shift the viewer’s perspective and sympathies. The first major plot twist is something of a cockeyed riff on Psycho, in which the audience abruptly finds themselves anxiously rooting for a suspect to evade the investigators’ dogged sleuthing. Things only get more unstable from there, as Knives Out consistently upends the viewer’s assumptions about how this story “should” be resolved, based on their own internalized notions of politics, justice, and proper storytelling. At a more tactile level, the film jostles the cozier aspects of the whodunit with trope subversions – no cooling corpse in the conservatory, for example – and left-field cross-genre touches like a rattling car chase sequence and creepy horror-movie flourishes.

The real key to Knives Out’s charm, however, is its true-hearted heroine, Marta, whom de Armas imparts with a spellbinding blend of guilelessness, apprehension, and world-weary pessimism. It’s easy to see why the acidic and yet twinkle-eyed Harlan might have regarded her as a kindred spirit, or at least a tolerable companion compared to his morass of grubby, green-eyed relations. Critically, Knives Out never pulls an ugly reversal on the viewer: Marta is exactly who she appears to be, even if she sometimes bends the truth as far as his gastric reflexes will allow. This makes her a sturdy and appealing proxy for the audience, even as the other characters’ slimy maneuverings yank the plot this way and that.

Hovering pointedly over the film’s pot-boiler plot are sticky (and timely) matters of class, race, celebrity, legal status, and the vicious politics of entitlement. It’s certainly not incidental that Marta is a Latinx woman – and the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, no less – in a household full of rich, self-absorbed white folks. The Thromby family runs the gamut from boorish MAGA-heads to ivy-league liberals, but they’re all clueless and smugly entitled in their way, even open-minded “cool girl” and self-styled social-justice warrior Meg. (There’s a running joke wherein each of the Thrombys patronizingly praises Marta’s hard work and insists that she’s a de facto member of the family – but has no clue what country her literal family is from.) This makes for some distinctly gaudy satire at times, especially when it comes to vacuous “lifestyle guru” Joni, but Johnson keeps things buzzing along such that the film never idles long enough to linger on the cheaper jabs. The screenplay’s most effective comedy tends to lie in its goofier sight gags and whip-smart callbacks, the pinnacle of the latter being an epic boomerang joke that bookends the entire film.

In the end, Knives Out isn’t truly satirizing wealth; Harlan himself was an affluent man, after all, and the viewer is invited to both sympathize with the deceased novelist and gape appreciatively at the lavish “Clue on steroids” house he built for himself. As a murder-mystery writer, however, Harlan was something of a scholar on human fallibility, and his own family – all of them self-proclaimed experts on who “deserves” what in America today – are a rotten case-study for the ages. The real target for the film’s skewering is the miserable, mean-spirited predictability of the wealthy, the tiresome ease with which puffed-up private mythologies and supposedly cherished principals are tossed aside when fortunes are on the line. In this, Knives Out has an affinity with this summer’s horror-survival feature Ready Or Not; both films take aim at the pathetic (and yet frightening) fragility of the hallowed codes that the one-percent claim to uphold. That Johnson slips this sort of tart commentary seamlessly into the fabric of a crowd-pleasing drawing-room thriller anyone’s grandmother could love – well, that just makes it all the more wily and delightful.

Rating: B+