The first time you watch the crackling good, old-fashioned murder mystery “Knives Out,” you’ll have a grand time trying to figure out who killed Harlan Thrombey and why.
When you catch it again on a home viewing platform sometime down the road, you’ll enjoy seeing how writer-director Rian Johnson pieced together the puzzle, dropping clues and diverting you with red herrings in wickedly funny fashion.
This is one of those movies where it looks like the immensely appealing cast had as much fun making the film as we have watching it — especially because so many of these familiar faces are playing against type.
I mean, you don’t expect to see Chris “Captain America” Evans playing a detestable cad straight out of a vintage Farrelly brothers comedy, but Evans is hilarious as one Ransom Robinson (who names their child after a kidnapper’s bounty?), a smug and entitled product of a privileged life who might remind you of a certain presidential son with a “Junior” attached to his name.
Then there’s Daniel Craig’s Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (again with the fantastic names), he of the honey-dripped accent and the sartorial splendor and long cigars. Blanc has a habit of sitting in the corner of a room, coolly observing the goings-on, smugly convinced of his crime-solving abilities as if he’s the sleuthing cinematic descendant of Hercule Poirot. And he does have an impressive track record of solving crimes, but his methodology is often more reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau than Sherlock Holmes. (At one point, Blanc actually pulls out a magnifying glass and exclaims, “The game’s afoot, eh Watson!”) James Bond would sneer at such a bumbler.
Detective Blanc has been hired to investigate the death of Harlan Thrombey (the invaluable Christopher Plummer), a world-famous and fabulously successful author of murder mysteries (!), who on the night of his 85th birthday is found dead with his throat slashed and a dagger by his side.
It appears to have been a suicide — or was it? That’s what Blanc aims to find out, though he doesn’t even know who hired him. His anonymous client left him an envelope filled with a thick stack of cash and a note urging him to get to the bottom of a very tangled web.
Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the beginning, always a good place to start when dissecting a murder mystery.
Earlier that evening, most of the extended Thrombey family had gathered at the patriarch’s cavernous mansion, which is exactly the kind of stately manor where Col. Mustard could have committed murder in the library with a candlestick.
Michael Shannon takes a break from playing laser-focused, frighteningly intense characters to portray Harlan’s insecure, desperate-to-please-daddy son Walt, who has been charged with running the publishing empire that was built on the foundation of Harlan’s books, which have sold 80 million copies. Jaeden Martell is Walt’s creepy, alt-right teenage son, Jacob, whom Blanc refers to as “the Nazi child.”
Jamie Lee Curtis is all sharp and funny edges as Harlan’s daughter Linda, and Don Johnson is Linda’s silky-smooth snake of a husband, Richard. Evans plays their son, the aforementioned Ransom, who zips around in his BMW and sticks around at various proceedings just long enough to annoy everyone before taking off.
The roll call continues with Toni Collette as Joni, the New Age wife of Harlan’s late son, and Joni’s daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), a bright and promising college student who might be the only redeemable human being in this family of shallow, back-stabbing, money-grubbing, conniving schemers.
But the person who seems to be the most deeply affected by Harlan’s death is his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), an immigrant who had become Harlan’s closest companion in his waning days. The Thrombey brood keeps telling Marta she’s part of the family, but these idiots can’t even be bothered to learn where she’s from. One of them says she’s from Brazil; another is sure it’s Paraguay. Or is it Guatemala?
As we learn from a series of viewpoint-shifting vignettes, Harlan had delivered bad news to a number of family members on the night of his birthday — thus giving them motive for … MURDER!
Once Harlan is gone and the family fortune is up for grabs, the knives come out in more ways than one.
The Thrombeys put on airs as if they’re some Mayflower Society clan with an ancestral home built centuries ago, but in reality Harlan bought the place from a Pakistani businessman in the late 1980s. When one of Harlan’s potential heirs boasts of having built a successful business from the ground up, it’s quickly pointed out the venture began with a million-dollar loan from Harlan. And when Marta is seen as an adversary, a Thrombey family member threatens to have her mother deported. (The jabs at Trump’s America are frequent and obvious.)
Rian Johnson’s screenplay is rich with one-line zingers, and as a director he deftly juggles a half-dozen parallel storylines that eventually overlap and intersect in revealing ways. The telling of the tale is more entertaining than the relatively underwhelming puzzle-solving moments, but the cast keeps knocking it out of the park to the very end.
Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas will be onscreen together again soon, in the next James Bond movie, “No Time to Die.”
I’ll bet they’ll kill it again.
So to speak.