Knives Out is an homage to Agatha Christie-esque murder-mystery-who-done-its. But it’s more than that. Yes, it’s full of the requisite surprises, twists and turns. Built like a Rubik’s Cube, elements slide into place and the picture becomes clearer. But once all of its colors are in place, once the puzzle is solved, the movie isn’t disposable. There’s far too much to enjoy on the journey that the destination almost becomes secondary. Which is a good thing, since the final reveal doesn’t cut quite as deep is it should.
I wasn’t kidding about the Agatha Christie comparisons. The set-up to Knives Out is reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express and stories of its ilk. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling author of a long running series of mystery novels and patriarch of a publishing empire, invites his extended and dysfunctional family to his boggy, Boston mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. The next day he’s found dead in his study, his throat slit. The suspects are numerous, almost all related to him, and played by an all-star cast of familiar faces. A week later an eccentric sleuth, Benoit Blanc (a scene chewing Daniel Craig), hired under mysterious circumstances, calls all of the suspects back to the crime scene where he begins questioning the suspects, attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Much like Hercules Poirot whose curly-cue mustache and outrageous French accent made Agatha Christie’s detective stand out, Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc (I mean, you’ve gotta love that name) has his own eccentricities that separate him from the pack, namely, a predilection for three-piece, tweed suits and a southern accent that gives Poirot’s a run for his money. Craig is commanding and funny as Blanc, but gets a little lost in all of the plotting. Some of that’s on purpose. He’s not supposed to be the movie’s main focus. Often as mysterious as the plot, the movie wrings tension out of whether he’s the smartest person in the room or not. I get it, he might be named Blanc for a good reason, but maybe he’s left a little too mysterious, left just a little too much out of the film’s proceedings.
The all-star cast (Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, LaKeith Stanfield, et al.) and an eccentric supersleuth set us up for a classic murder mystery, but the path tread to the final reveal is anything but well worn. I was never ahead of the plot and at the 45 minute mark things became more, um, complex than anticipated. Good mysteries have you scratching your head, with this one, I genuinely didn’t know where it could even go. What’s impressive is that the film still checks the appropriate genre trope boxes while piling unexpected layers on top of them.
There’s more to Knives Out than simple (or complex) homage, though. This is Rian Johnson after all, the man who thwarted fanboy expectations with his Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. This movie, also written by Johnson, has more on its mind than just a murder mystery. Knives Out uses its setting and characters as a microcosm of our larger world: A white affluent family that will do seemingly anything to remain in power while paying lip service to inclusion. Sound familiar? The family members bicker about politics, argue about immigration, declare that Harlan’s caretaker and confidant, Marta (Ana de Armas), should be considered part of the family, yet a running gag reveals that they can’t even be bothered to find out what country Marta emigrated from. And when push comes to shove, and it does, how inclusive do you think they’re going to be? The commentary is spot on, but what makes it special is how neatly Johnson folds all of this and more (watch for sly digs at vitriolic Star Wars “fans”) into the familiar trappings of a murder mystery without missing a beat.
After all this praise, I do have to admit that the final reveal is a slight disappointment. At first. (No spoilers. I’ll be vague). It’s inevitable. Mystery rarely lives up to expectations. But Knives Out is a victim of its own cleverness. The preceding movie surprises so consistently, you expect some earth-shattering disclosure at the end that will completely turn the film on its head. The reveal here…doesn’t. It’s straight-forward. Logical. It works. But I expected more. Maybe that’s just Johnson circumventing expectations again.
Either way, it’s still a movie you’ll watch again to sift through clues, to revel in the cleverness, the breadcrumbs left in plain sight, but it’s also worth a rewatch for just how fun it is. The movie crackles with wit and snark, but doesn’t get bogged down with cynicism. Elevating itself above simple homage and working on several levels, Knives Out is sharp entertainment.