Like a good jazz riff, “Knives Out” is director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) taking the conventional trappings of an all-star whodunit and twisting them into an engaging cat-and-mouse thriller with a subtle social commentary.
“Knives” starts out with murder mystery staples: after a party for wealthy mystery writer Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) 85th birthday, Harlan’s discovered dead the next day from an apparent suicide (slitting his own throat with a knife). Following the funeral, the family attending his party is called back to Thrombey manor to be interviewed by local police. Though a seeming formality to shed light on Harlan’s suicide, the odd appearance of private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) accompanying the police suggests otherwise. The interviewed include daughter Linda and husband Richard (Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), son Walt (Michael Shannon), and widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette). Blanc quietly observes the individual interrogations, noting their ‘whens’ and ‘wheres’ on the night in question. Mystery begins to manifest when their personal disagreements with Dad begin to emerge and they become possible perpetrators with motives for murder. Adding to the mystery is Harlan’s nephew Ransom (Chris Evans), who arrives for the reading of Harlan’s will that has its own set of surprises regarding who inherits Thrombey’s $60 million estate. Is Blanc there to see through a charade of suicide?
Where “Knives” veers off the norm and becomes notable is Dad’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). Marta’s called in to be questioned but arrives late as she’s been excluded from the funeral proceedings. Though she’s told by the Thrombeys she’s like family, they apologize to Marta for her exclusion from the funeral- she’s still considered the help. After learning Marta has a gag reflex preventing her to lie, Blanc quickly uses her as his ‘go-to’ to get whoever may have ended Harlan’s life. But Marta knows more than she lets on, and we learn her secrets. The fun of “Knives” is getting caught in Marta’s cat-and-mouse game with Blanc for information she cannot physically conceal.
Because the cat-and-mouse game works so well, de Armas and Craig stand out in a well-cast group of good actors. While the other characters begin to feel like background as a result, the script’s compelling enough that you don’t feel like any of the actors are wasted- in fact, their contributions make the story compelling. But in using Marta, director Johnson gets you involved and creates an empathy with Marta that speaks to how the wealthy view workers or how the elite see those seeking opportunity. Within the confines of a whodunit, it’s a smart take on American social status. “Knives Out” is entertaining because it’s unique. For seemingly standard fare, it’s sharper than you’d expect.