The highly amusing whodunit “Knives Out” includes much of what you would expect from a movie inspired by the work of Agatha Christie: a mysterious death, a list of suspects, an eccentric investigator.
But the latest film from director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Last Jedi”) is hardly typical. The writing, also by Johnson, is fresh and executed with precision by a strong ensemble cast. And, as the filmmaker explained at the Denver Film Festival earlier this month, he incorporates something else from Christie’s playbook: using culture to ground the movie and its characters in the time in which the action takes place. For “Knives Out,” that means nods to immigration, Hallmark movies, and a running joke about Americans – or maybe just the film’s fictional family – being lousy at geography. Or listening. Or both.
The mystery begins with a shot of the newly deceased crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey, played in flashbacks with smirky appeal by Christopher Plummer. The search is on to find out how the bestselling writer died. Suicide? Murder?
One by one we meet the relatives, a delicious assortment of suspects: Thrombey’s daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband (Don Johnson), their son (Chris Evans, of “Captain America” fame), Thrombey’s youngest son, who runs the publishing business (Michael Shannon), and a widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), among others. They all seem to have secrets from the night of the patriarch’s death, when they gathered for his birthday. And where does Thrombey’s nurse, played with heart and deer-in-the-headlights charm by Ana de Armas, fit in?
Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator dubbed the “last of the gentlemen sleuths” in a New Yorker profile, enters the picture to help sort things out. Working with the officers assigned to the case, he tells the shifty family members to pay him no mind, that he will be a passive observer whose “presence will be ornamental.” Happily, that is not the case. Shedding his James Bond intensity, Craig plays Blanc with well-timed goofiness, talking in circles and leaving the audience wondering (in a good way) if he is solving anything, or just likes to listen to himself.
Speaking of which, director Johnson clearly loves dialogue, perhaps as much as he loves whodunits. (He devours them, noting that more are found on the small screen these days.) A previous mystery of his, “Brick,” set among high schoolers, uses such specialized noir slang that captioning is a must to follow the story. That is less needed here, but would allow for the catching of every joke, some of which may not be to everyone’s taste.
Ultimately, the audience is kept guessing about what happened – something everyone wants from a good mystery, even a contemporary one.