Is there a more quintessential opening to a murder mystery than a housekeeper ascending a creaky flight of stairs in a mansion to find the house’s aged owner dead? Probably not, and in making this his first scene, Rian Johnson lets us know that while Knives Out is astoundingly clever and very funny, it’s no parody. This is an honest-to-God whodunit in the Agatha Christie style that is too busy entertaining and obfuscating to ever find time to poke smarmy holes in the genre. A delight from start to finish, Knives Out brings together an all star cast in an old school detective story for one of the most deliciously fun films of the year.
The victim is multimillionaire titan of mystery fiction Harlan Thrombey (played in flashbacks by an excellent Christopher Plummer), found with his throat cut in his study the morning after his 85th birthday. The detective is confident Southern gentleman Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). And the suspects are the deceased’s entire extended family, plus his loyal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). Witty and razor-sharp, this is a clean, crisp, and taut story, backed up by hilarious dialogue and an on the button political message about white entitlement, immigration, and the toxicity of inherited wealth that adds to, rather than interrupts, the excitement. To say any more would be to diminish the pleasure of working it all out as you go along, but the plot never misses a beat.
Boasting a wonderful ensemble, Knives Out of course gives its cast mostly archetypal roles, from Chris Evans as the playboy grandson unconcerned by manners to Toni Collette as a hippy-dippy lifestyle guru, but all the actors are having such a hoot that you can’t help but enjoy yourself. No one, though, is having more fun than Daniel Craig. Clearly relishing being let out of his gilded James Bond cage, he goes to town on his Southern drawl, silly and commanding and sweet all in one, with hints of Poirot and Columbo (amongst others) keeping the eccentric detective tradition alive.
Just bearing witness to him making tortured doughnut metaphors or casually asking ‘what’s the cheese?’ when trying to catch up on a situation is hilarious. Johnson also gives a refreshingly complete role to de Armas, rarely afforded the opportunity to be anything other than pretty, and she does a great job with it, carrying the emotional centre of the film while the Thrombey family bicker around her. Evans also looks like he’s enjoying being away from major franchise fare, all catty and unpredictable, while Jamie Lee Curtis is suitably imperious as the new de facto head of the family. Even the dogs turn in great performances.
Though there are some swishy visual flourishes – and the Thrombey house is immaculately designed, as all mystery houses need to be – Johnson mostly lets the script do the talking, and with good reason. Nothing here is wasted, every element introduced coming in to play later with various degrees of importance. Every story like this needs a great denouement, and Knives Out has a killer, layering reveal upon reveal in a way that is both dizzying and perfectly clear, not to mention deeply satisfying, giving everyone involved a worthy conclusion.
Part of what makes Knives Out such a joy is, of course, the fact that it’s a total original, but, come the ending, you will wish it were the start of a series. Johnson is clearly a gifted mystery thriller writer, and Craig is so charming and funny as Blanc that you’d happily watch a new instalment of him solving a high-profile murder every Christmas. An absolute must-watch at the cinema, Knives Out is, with an audience, one of the most wildly entertaining films of 2019, as well as decently family friendly. Its two hour plus runtime simply flies by, and maybe if it does well enough, we can get a few more of them.