Rian Johnson is a remarkable auteur, and while his list of writer-director credits has convinced me I prefer his mystery-comedy mode (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) to his science fiction (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), in every case he’s demonstrated an impressive command of the genre tropes in his arsenal. His track record improves with the delightful Knives Out (2019), a cagey modern reinvention of the Agatha Christie whodunit, which infuses its intricate mystery with razor-sharp political commentary and finely crafted, laugh-out-loud humor.
The mystery concerns the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an elderly, wildly successful crime novelist who lived in an eccentric country mansion. Thrombey was orbited by an extended family of “self-made” dependants who leverage his vast wealth in support of their lavish lifestyles. Thrombey’s death appears to be an open-and-shut case of suicide, but a loose-end series of interviews at the mansion is given peculiar new life with the arrival of famous private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc, unaware of his employer’s identity, senses a deeper mystery to Thrombey’s death. His interviews with Thrombey’s awful family reveal plenty of motive for murder, but the truth of the matter only begins to unravel once he enlists the aid of Thrombey’s young nurse and close friend, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), whose inability to lie without vomiting unexpectedly entangles her in the investigation into a complex, intricate crime.
Knives Out is wonderfully fun, old-fashioned mystery that unfolds in a gloriously clocked succession of reveals, flashbacks, and point-of-view shifts. This unique patchwork technique first paints a vivid picture of an outwardly respectable family coping with a tragedy, then muzzes up that portrait with more and more intrigue as details emerge and dodgy personalities come into focus. The classic Christie influence is stamped all over the packaging here, with Craig in the role of the notorious mystery-solving celebrity. His character’s name, Benoit Blanc, is clearly an homage to the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot — even if Craig gleefully renders the comparison ridiculous with an affected Kentucky drawl. Blanc draws the action along adroitly, initially with the assistance of a pair of police sounding boards: skeptical Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and a cheery state trooper named Wagner (Noah Segan). But later, it’s Marta who plays Watson to his Sherlock, in a star-making turn for the charismatic de Armas. Not to be outdone, the dysfunctional family of suspects is fleshed out with choice casting that includes Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Katherine Langford, and Michael Shannon, among others. It’s a wicked-fun rogue’s gallery of, well, rich American assholes, and the investigation’s pot-stirring effect on their family dynamic generates loads of highly entertaining conflict and comedy as the intricate mystery plays out.
This isn’t just a fun-and-games murder mystery, however. Yes, it serves up a crafty homage rife with metahumorous nods and winks to its genre predecessors, sending up the whodunit genre even as it exceptionally executes it. But it also layers in a winning level of insightful sociopolitical commentary, its subtext gleefully skewering the gaping political disconnects of the ultra-wealthy. This messaging is just the right mix of subtle and obvious, serious and hilarious, treading the same thematic waters as Ready or Not, a contemporary thematic cousin. A wildly entertaining, complex mystery that also has something to say? Knives Out is all that and more, and another memorable triumph for Johnson.