Whodunits aren’t an omnipresent genre on the silver screen these days and rare recent ones like Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express have had a bit of an unnecessary regurgitated vibe to it. Not so with Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which displays the writer/director’s enthusiasm for playing in this murderous sandbox to satisfactory effect. Like the 1974 version of Orient Express, we have a 007 involved. 45 years ago, it was Sean Connery and now it’s Daniel Craig. There’s a Marvel superhero (Chris Evans) playing decidedly against type. A captain of the American crime novel industry meets his demise in a stately manner that’s a triumph of production design. Craig and Evans are having a good time here, as is the rest of the cast. Some get better opportunities to shine than others. One of the standouts even has her crowd pleasing moments that involves regurgitation.
The Thrombey family is celebrating the 85th birthday of their patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy novelist who won’t allow his capers to be adapted into films or TV specials. This is a source of frustration for son Walt (Michael Shannon), who cares for his publishing empire. The family drama doesn’t stop there. Harlan is prepared to expose family secrets or cut off the gravy train for eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her philandering husband (Don Johnson) and daughter-in-law and would-be life coaching guru Joni (Toni Collette). Evans is the black sheep grandson in a clan where that’s saying something. Everyone has a reason to get rid of Harlan. His most healthy relationship is with a non-family member – caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas). She’s from another country and it could be Brazil or Ecuador and one ending with “guay”. Don’t ask the Thrombeys as they express an admiration for her, but hilariously have no clue where she came from. This is all part of Johnson’s integration of the immigration debate into a screenplay that manages to occasionally weave current events into the foul play happenings.
That foul play means Harlan’s celebration is short-lived. Enter private detective Benoit Blanc as played by Craig and his work is a far cry from James Bond. Adopting a thick Southern drawl and a patient attitude to finding the killer, Blanc nevertheless seems a step ahead of the other policemen investigating. They want to believe Harlan might have committed suicide as the evidence suggests. Yet no whodunit script could make it that simple, could it?
Knives Out clues the audience in on some revelations before they enter Blanc’s consciousness from time to time. Johnson probably could have held some back for stronger pacing results. And some of the performers never quite have the running time to develop their roles. These turn out to be minor criticisms in the grand scheme. De Armas and Evans form the yin and yang of the case and are afforded the most clock time in the game along with Craig. The frequent twists and turns experienced are a hoot as we anticipate what Johnson will throw up on the screen next.
*** (out of four)