There was a time when Hollywood would churn out Agatha Christie-inspired whodunits like it was nobody else’s business. You know how it goes, a plot filled with highly suspicious characters, all connected by a mysterious murder, but who among them did the dirty deed? Eventually, this genre got tiresome and clichéd, but in an era of cinema where most big-studio movies aren’t interested in doing adult-oriented dramas, director Rian Johnson has decided to bring it back.
With “Knives Out,” Johnson doesn’t necessarily re-invent the whodunnit, but he does re-energize it, paying tribute to the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ms. Christie herself. After tackling “Star Wars” with “The Last Jedi,” Johnson’s creative mojo now feels unchained, unbounded by the creative restrictions of Star Wars and Disney; And yet, he is also no stranger to the whodunnit genre either — his 2005 debut, “Brick” was a mystery set in high school and infused with film noir fervor.
Of course, there has to be a murder, and in “Knives Out” it’s best-selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) who is found dead by, what is supposedly, suicide.
The death seems to have happened on the night of Harlan’s 85th birthday celebration. His three children, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walt (Michael Shannon) and Joni (Toni Collette), not to mention their children, were all present that fateful evening, which renders them as immediate suspects. Soon after Harlan’s corpse is found, the police show up (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan), but so does detective Blanc (Daniel Craig), a man who has received a sum of money with an unsigned letter stating that Harlan was murdered.
Every one of the suspects share their own version of the events, but each one of them is also afforded flashbacks to reveal the omissions and lies in their accounts to the detectives — this is a nifty little twist on “Rashomon.” All eyes seem to be pointing to Harlan’s black-sheep grandson, Ransom (Chris Evans), who fought with Harlan the night of the murder supposedly about being taken off the family will. But hold on, a key witness to Harlan’s death may be nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the immigrant maid who was closest to Harlan’s Heart and witnessed the crime. Johnson uses Marta’s story to inject his movie with a dash of topical undertones. You see, not only is this maid’s mother an undocumented worker, but telling the police what she knows may spell trouble for their future in the country.
Johnson repeatedly plays with his intricate narrative by consistently trying to pull the rug from under us and having us expect the unexpected. The only time this approach does not work is in the final few minutes. He goes in over his end in twists, that “Knives Out” damn-near threatens to derail. And maybe it does, but so what? The getting there is such an infectiously delicious funhouse that you forgive the imperfections. [B+]