Murder Mysteries share several common denominators, primarily a private investigator, a victim, a list of suspects, their possible motives, and ultimately the killer revealed. The key to a good detective story lies in the author’s mixture of these ingredients. A Whodunit’s greatness can be determined by its intricate plotting or by its memorable characters, notably the lead detective, from Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple. In rare instances, the elements blend with a humorous touch, often to the point of parody, as in Murder by Death or Clue.
Rian Johnson made his directorial film debut fourteen years ago with Brick, a neo-noir set in high school whose characters spoke in the parlance of a Dashiel Hammett yarn. Now, he comes out with his latest feature, Knives Out, an entertaining romp that has fun with its first rate cast of characters without ever tipping into full-on caricature. It’s Johnson’s love letter to the genre, but his decision to place it in a contemporary setting subverts the material and makes it refreshing in a sociopolitical context.
But let’s take a look at the story first and see if we can check off the elements listed above. The victim in this particular case is a highly renowned murder mystery writer (go figure), Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), found dead in his study with his throat slit and a knife in his hand. The private investigator here is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose physique could match that of toughies like Sam Spade, but whose demeanor is more genteel, with a Southern drawl reminiscent of Foghorn Leghorn. The police deem Harlan’s death a suicide. Blanc, having been asked to investigate by a third party, is convinced that foul play is afoot.
Next, we have the suspects, which include Thrombey’s entire family, all with viable motives. They include his eldest daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul who runs her own company, not that it ever impressed her father. There are also her adulterous husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their ne’er do well son, Hugh “Ransom” (Chris Evans), who was left out of his granddad’s will and didn’t even bother to show up at the memorial. Also included is the youngest son, Walter (Michael Shannon), who was let go as CEO of his father’s publishing company under the pretext that he should carve out a life of his own, despite Walter’s protests. Finally, we have Harlan’s daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), who would inherit money from him meant for her elder daughter’s tuition (Katherine Langford) but secretly conspires to channel it into her skin care and self-help guru business instead.
Perhaps it was someone outside of the family. It could not possibly be Thrombey’s personal nurse, Marta (a winningly endearing Ana de Armas)? With a pure heart and soul, she shared a close bond with Harlan, stronger than the ones he had with anyone in his family, and is incapable of lying. The very notion makes her retch, literally. Just because she is unable to lie, does that mean, however, she cannot keep a few secrets of her own, which may or may not tie her to Thrombey’s fate?
I will not divulge who the killer is, or even any of the twists and turns that occur in the plot for fear of spoiling it. What I will say, however, is how clearly Johnson relishes in letting the audience second-guess themselves at every turn, unsure about not only the case, but also what these characters are capable of, intellectually or morally. Blanc is considered “the last of the Gentlemanly Sleuths”, but we are not sure just how much he is catching on; if he lives up to his reputation or is merely an eccentric numbskull (At one point, he declares the case “is like a donut with the hole missing. And the hole itself is missing a hole!”).
The whole cast is having a ball, reveling in the web Johnson weaves. This encompasses not only the aforementioned major players, but minor ones as well. Standouts include Lakeith Stanfield and frequent Johnson collaborator Noah Segan as a pair of policemen assigned to the case, constantly perplexed by Blanc’s persistence in proving Harlan’s death was not a suicide. Also getting a lot of laughs are K Callan as Harlan’s ancient mother, and former Muppeteer Frank Oz as the long-suffering executor of the old man’s will.
The retro set design harks back to the 1940s at the earliest, yet Knives Out is riddled with markers of modernity, particularly through Walter’s son’s (Jaeden Martell) extensive sessions of trolling users on social media via his cell phone. However, Johnson goes beyond mere references to Hamilton or Twitter. He interrogates modern-day issues of economic disparity and American nationalism to twist inside out the conventions of the genre much like he did to science fiction with his previous films, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Looper. In one flashback, we see the family pulling poor Marta, who came to America with her mother and sister from Brazil (or was it Uruguay?), into their debate on illegal immigration. It is a scene that made my stomach churn, having known people who made similar arguments some of these family members raise here.
The murderer is revealed, and the line between Good and Evil is reestablished, but even the assailant’s identity raises interesting questions on not only the financial and cultural gaps ever-present in this country, but if it is even feasible to treat each other with kindness, particularly in Trump’s America. In a season where we have had genre films like Joker and Parasite explore similarly relevant terrain, Knives Out is a whodunit that dares to challenge us while always being a devilish good time at the movies.