In the grand tradition of Agatha Christie comes Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, an ingenious, exciting, rollicking good time. It’s best experienced with no knowledge of the plot, so if that’s enough to convince you to see it, our job here is done. If you need a little more, read on, where we will endeavor to review with as few spoilers as possible.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a successful mystery writer whose apparent suicide shocks his family. What should be a clean-cut investigation is then complicated by the arrival of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a detective of some renown, who is hired by an anonymous note in an envelope filled with cash. The suicide was somewhat uncharacteristic, and Blanc navigates the complicated network of trust and hate among the clan. All felt some anger toward the patriarch, but each had an interest in keeping him alive so they could ride his gravy train, even as they suffer from delusions of being “self-made” despite his immense financial assistance. Joining Blanc in his investigation is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and close confidant with a secret of her own.
PG-13, 130 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
The film is immediately charming, with its delicious intrigue and gut-busting laughs. The wit is fast and sharp, the setting straight out of a classic whodunit. The colorful characters are brought to life by an all-star ensemble cast: Plummer, Craig, de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell, Katherine Langford, and Riki Lindhome—a reviewer could devote his entire word count to their performances.
Alfred Hitchcock once described the difference between surprise and suspense: imagine two people are sitting at a table, and suddenly a bomb goes off. Yes, the explosion is a surprise, but it’s not very exciting and it’s not much of a story. If, however, the audience sees the bomb and knows that it will go off but the characters do not, that’s suspense. We’re now fully engaged, counting the seconds until they find out. The same is true of mysteries. If the only important part of the story is the big reveal, our enjoyment is based only on how surprised we are, and rewatching is essentially pointless. And if we can predict the perpetrator, we’re just spinning our wheels for two hours while the story catches up.
What is it that sets Christie stories apart, and how does Johnson build on that so effectively? There are the surface-level qualities: high-society characters with countless secrets, an unstoppable detective facing an unsolvable crime. The complexity of the story makes you wonder how everything will unravel, and the resolution makes you gasp, even if you predicted some version of it. And even once you know what happens, you want to experience the story again and again.
That final component is the real key to success in Christie’s stories, and in Knives Out. For much of the film’s duration, the emphasis is not on whodunit, but on how a particular character will conceal a crucial bit of information, doing so with the audience’s full sympathies as the lead detective carries out his investigation. We think we know who did what, how, when, and why, but that’s not the story we’re watching. Johnson is devilishly clever in the way he pulls this off and frees us from having to solve it for ourselves so we can enjoy how well the story is told.
Throughout it all, Johnson’s use of the current political climate is the slyest of all his tricks. In a family this large and affluent, there are sure to be competing beliefs, and disagreements amplify the divisions between them. But characters are not measured by political sympathies, rather by who they seek for comfort when their position is threatened. There’s stability in wealth and family, more so than in sacrificing status for professed beliefs. Class solidarity unites the wealthy across the liberal-conservative divide, and the Thrombey family only unites when their employee, an immigrant woman, becomes their main obstacle.
Knives Out is thrilling, funny, and brilliantly realized. There is no weak link in the ensemble cast, no dull moment in the dialogue. The tone is breezy but wonderfully tense. A taut, breathless, instant classic.
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.
See it again
Meet Me in St. Louis
NR, 113 minutes
December 8, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX