Knives Out is a classic whodunit in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Yet, it also breaks several rules that most murder mysteries wouldn’t have the spine to pull off. It’s fitting that Clue was an inspiration, as the film plays out like an intense strategy board game between the audience and director Rian Johnson. With his previous film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Johnson sparked an ongoing debate about subverting expectations. Knives Out subverts expectations in all the right ways, however. Johnson keeps the audience guessing with every twist and turn, building to a satisfying explanation that feels earned. Whether you see the final revelation coming or get the rug swept out from under you, nobody can deny that the journey is ton a fun.
As Harlan Thrombey, Christopher Plummer heads a family of parasites who are all eager to inherit his fortune. They get their wish when old man Thrombey kicks the bucket with Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) ruling his death a suicide. Daniel Craig plays Detective Benoit Blanc, a combination of Sherlock Holmes and his Logan Lucky character, who isn’t convinced that Harlan took his own life. The suspects consist of Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife Joni (Toni Collette), and Harlan’s other son Ransom (Chris Evans). Also among the family are Meg (Katherine Langford), the only one who seemingly has a moral compass, and Jacob (Jaeden Martell), an internet troll who probably didn’t much care for The Last Jedi. Of course, Blanc’s suspects are restricted to family members.
The ads for Knives Out have done a commendable job at keeping the story under wraps, but the best-kept secret in the film is Ana de Armas, who stars as Harlan’s nurse, Marta. In a film full of A-listers, it’d be easy for an up-and-comer like de Armas to get lost in the shuffle. This works to the film’s advantage, though, allowing her riveting performance to sneak up on the audience. De Armas emerges as the heart of the movie, balancing empathy, guilt, confusion, and great comedic timing all at once. I won’t give away how Marta may or may not be connected to the mystery, but de Armas is undeniably guilty of stealing the show.
Aside from de Armas, the real star of Knives Out is Johnson’s screenplay, which is clever without ever coming off as overly confident. Johnson throws a curveball fairly early on that easily could’ve backfired. He stacks one mystery on top of the other like a Jenga tower and at times the audience half expects the whole structure to collapse. Through sharp foreshadowing, witty dialogue, and a meticulously plotted story, though, Johnson’s gambit pays off in a big way. This is a film that merits a second viewing to catch all the clues you missed the first time and a third viewing just because the ride is that exhilarating.
Johnson’s storytelling is matched by his craft, sneaking colorful visuals into every nook and cranny of Harlan’s mansion. At one point, somebody describes the mansion as a life-sized Clue board, which is an accurate assessment. You can see traces of Norman Bates’ parlor room from Psycho and Hill House. There are also enough knives on display to build an Iron Throne replica. Like the best movies of its kind, the mansion becomes a character in itself, booming with just as much personality as the actors onscreen. From the script, to the art direction, the ensemble, Knives Out hits its target in every department.