Macabre as it is, there’s something comfy about the universe of Rian Johnson’s ensemble whodunit, Knives Out. It’s a place where a famous detective strides into a garish family manse (weapons mounted on walls, sinister oil paintings, bearskin rugs with extra-large bear heads, secret staircases, etc.) and peppers a lineup of relatives and servants with questions like, “Where were you at 12:01 on the morning of…?” as suspects nervously try to keep their features composed. It’s all a bit of a fake-out — you can smell the red herrings a mile away — but it’s fun to see these Richie Riches (who treat immigrants with smug condescension) sweat and stammer and be exposed for all the world as moral frauds if not outright killers. It’s comfy, too, to see these well-known actors take as much pleasure in one another’s company as their characters take little, relishing the opportunity to volley with their equals or betters in a kind of dream summer-stock troupe. As an adolescent, I loved summer stock as much as I loved ensemble drawing-room mysteries, and I suspect that Johnson, an adolescent genre enthusiast to his core, has waited since age 10 to make a movie like this. His enjoyment is contagious, even for those of us who don’t think Knives Out quite hits its marks. We respond to his bravura — the exuberant thrust.
Self-conscious to a fault, the film features a decedent who’s no ordinary patriarch but a world-famous writer of mysteries just like this one: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party, which was attended by his children, grandchildren, and sundry hangers-on. Did he slit his own throat or was the scene cleverly, posthumously staged? Who would want to murder the old boy? A detective shows up, having been hired by a person or persons unknown: Benoit Blanc, the “last of the gentlemen sleuths,” played by Daniel Craig with an accent that made me hungry for crawfish étouffée. Blanc is an eccentric character — so random in his tics that I wasn’t sure I ever knew who he was. But I knew who he wasn’t: James Bond, which is plainly the most important thing to Craig.
As Blanc pieces together the timeline, Knives Out shows off a syntax that’s old-fashioned tricky — as opposed to postmodern tricky. This won’t be some weird, meta hallucination, like Serendipity, with a non-resolution suggesting that truth can never be known. Instead, events will be replayed from multiple perspectives, each suspect’s motives scrutinized. The night of his death, Thrombey seemed to savor delivering bad news to each family member seriatim. The joke is that almost no one didn’t want to murder the old boy. But who had motive and opportunity? The sleek, starched real estate magnate, Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), or her philandering, pretty-boy husband, Richard (Don Johnson)? The gimpy Walt (Michael Shannon), nominally in charge of the publishing company but miserably out of the loop in everything that matters? What about the dipso daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), or her vaping daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), both sucking avidly at the paterfamilias’s teat? How about the grandson, Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), his face so unlined it might be a work of CGI? And what is the role of the seemingly ingenuous nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), an immigrant from somewhere (no one knows the precise Spanish-speaking country) who appears to be devoted to the octogenarian novelist — but could well have her eye on the mother lode?
The actors compete to see who can be more venal — and the more they succeed, the more we like them. Curtis plainly enjoys paring herself down to pure self-interest, her character’s soul as streamlined and monochromatic as her pants suits, while Johnson conjures up an amazing amount of dignity merely by maintaining his façade of handsomeness as age and lack of conviction hollows him out. Shannon turns the treble in his voice into a steady whine and lurches around the frame as if auditioning to play (successfully) Norman Bates’s mother. Collette makes Joni a fascinating collection of feminine wiles, all of them vaguely out of sync to suggest desperation and bedragglement. In flashback, they are all — actors and characters — in the thrall of Plummer, who uses meanness like a laser pointer. He plays his theater games to win — and no one else has a chance.
The movie’s high style calls too much attention to itself, though — all those canted angles and frames crammed with claustrophobia-inducing bric-a-brac, all that badinage suggestive not of characters in Agatha Christie plays but people who’ve seen too many Agatha Christie plays and too many parodies of them as well. (Johnson throws in a lot of four-letter words, which in context feel cheap.) A production designed to within an inch of its life, Knives Out always seems on the brink of being cleverer than it is, never quite shaking off its cobwebs and entering the present tense. You don’t get enough information to solve the crime yourself and the final revelations are more confusing than illuminating — the only real pleasure in the closing minutes is seeing rich white bigots get their comeuppance. I had a better time at the B version of this movie — this summer’s gory, supernatural hack-‘em-up Ready or Not.
But critics evidently love Knives Out and audiences might just go along with it, especially over the holidays. It looks the part. The actors are terrific fun, and Nathan Johnson’s score has a way of creeping to the edge of bombast and pulling back into something plaintive and mysterious. The Cuban actress Ana de Armas has a beautiful, clear face that keeps you in suspense — you don’t want it to be clouded by disillusionment. My favorite moment in the film is a throwaway: Monsieur Blanc with headphones, eyes closed, singing along to … What the hell? Is that Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” from Follies? If I didn’t know better, I’d think Johnson was poking fun at Adam Driver’s risible “Being Alive” epiphany in Marriage Story. It also suggests a bunch of teenagers at an acting camp — the best level on which to appreciate Knives Out.