Knives Out

Knives Out is one of the most tightly plotted movies I've seen in years. Murder mysteries inherently need tight plots, because part of the joy in watching them comes from finding out how all the pieces connect. Still, writer/director Rian Johnson takes that need to another level, creating a mystery within a mystery. Consequently, you hang on every line of dialogue, savor every shot, and wait breathlessly to see where things will go next. The film is pure entertainment from start to finish.

Noted mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his spacious mansion, his throat slit. Private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the scene to figure out who did it. The suspects are numerous. Was it his businesswoman daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson), or their obnoxious, entitled son Ransom (the hilarious Chris Evans)? Was it his son/publisher Walt (Michael Shannon), his gold-digging daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), or his granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford)? Or could it possibly have been his in-home nurse Marta (Ana de Armas)?

Knives Out does something interesting and unexpected. A little less than an hour in, it tells you what happened. With that knowledge, it seems like there's nowhere else for the story to go. Then a second, more subtle mystery begins unfurling. In the final twenty minutes, the details of that mystery are revealed, and the ingeniousness of what Johnson has crafted is immensely satisfying.

Each member of the ensemble cast gives a great performance. They all create vivid, fun-to-observe characters. As things play out, we see the relationships between them develop in unanticipated ways. Tensions rise to the surface at times; at others, family bonds drive them to protect one another in spite of those tensions. The actors make such twisted dynamics feel real. There's not a weak link among them.

To the extent that there are leads, they would be Blanc and Marta, who are most front and center. Craig does a hilarious parody of the Hercule Poirot type, giving the investigator a thick Foghorn Leghorn accent to match his Columbo-esque tendency to withhold how much he knows. One doesn't necessarily equate Craig with comedy, but his work here suggests we should.

Ana de Armas, meanwhile, brings alive the idea that Marta is caught up in this familial madness, much to her dismay. The actress additionally shows crack comic timing with one of the film's wittiest jokes – a bizarre quality that inadvertently makes the nurse a human lie detector. This is star-making work from de Armas, who previously appeared in Blade Runner 2049.

Johnson's screenplay is full of witty lines and clever you-won't-see-it-coming twists. Knives Out creates a world that's a pleasure to visit, then fills it with amusingly flawed people who are intriguing to follow. The film is more than a murder mystery, though. It's also a dark comedy about a wealthy dysfunctional family, driven to hold on to their elite lifestyle after the death of their meal ticket. Whether you're coming for the mystery, the domestic satire, or both, you get a grade-A winner.

out of four

Knives Out is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.