Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” — a crackling, devious, and hugely satisfying old-school whodunnit with a modern twist — wants you to know that it takes place in the world of today. In fact, it wants you to know that it wants you to know. Hardly a minute goes by without some reference to the here and now of it all. When legendary crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday, it’s as if the past dies with him and the present comes rushing in to replace it, eager to claim the inheritance to which it always felt entitled.
Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs his late father’s publishing house, can be heard yammering on about selling all the movie rights to Netflix; technically that moment takes place in one of the film’s many seamless flashbacks, but it’s not as if Harlan’s kids were ever shy about their intentions. When famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows up to sleuth out the killer, an awed member of the Thrombey clan exclaims “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.” In a very funny movie where even the most throwaway jokes are later exhumed with vital importance, it’s no surprise that the profile in question eventually resurfaces as one of the script’s innumerable plot points. References to everything from Juuling to “Baby Driver” are strewn around the rest of the story; not since “Hamilton” has a juicy slice of theatrical entertainment been so openly determined to bridge the gap between old history and new language.
There’s a “Hamilton” reference too, of course, and that might be the most important nod of all. It comes at the expense of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s sweet-natured South American caregiver, when one of the clueless young cops who nips at Benoit’s heels declares “Immigrants: They get the job done.” The first time someone takes note of Marta, however, they refer to her as the help. In fairness, she’s the only one who doesn’t hurt. By contrast, every single member of Harlan’s star-studded family is out for blood. As soon as the patriarch’s body is discovered in the attic hideaway above his mansion, all of the children, grandkids, and in-laws who lived under its roof are ready to point fingers (things get especially heated once his death stops looking like a suicide).
Some of them are more likable than others, but none of them are easy to love. Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) built her own business from the ground up — she only needed a $1,000,000 loan from her daddy to do it. Joni (Toni Collette) is basically a glorified Instagram influencer, and that’s probably working out great. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on her. Even worse: He’s a Trump supporter. Walt’s teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) may be the only other self-identified Republican in the family, but he’s basically a mini Ben Shapiro. And it’s not like the rest of the family are doing all that much to separate themselves from MAGA politics. They tell Marta that she’s “part of the family,” but when it comes to splitting up Harlan’s will, well, things are going to get complicated. Let’s just say that the “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” energy is strong with this crowd, every single member of which feels like they deserve what’s coming to them. And do they — they just don’t know what that is yet.
Picking up where this summer’s (much bloodier) “Ready or Not” left off, “Knives Out” is a story about people who’ve convinced themselves that being rich is their birthright; that they’re entitled to their wealth because they’ve never had to work for it. But the movie is set in a changing world that’s tearing up tradition however it can, and the film is genius in how it slowly embodies that change, taking one of the dustiest of genres and reupholstering it from the inside out. This isn’t just “Murder on the Orient Express” with cell phones, but rather a room-shaking crowdpleaser that reckons with how fresh Agatha Christie’s books felt to those who read them in their time. What starts as a simple murder-mystery soon evolves into a brilliant, almost relentlessly fun examination of how the game has changed in a country where victory can’t afford to be as one-sided as it used to be.
Given the ridiculous depth of the film’s celebrity cast (all of whom seem to be having oodles of fun), it might be surprising that the relatively unfamous de Armas emerges as the protagonist. Phenomenal in “Blade Runner 2049” and even the recently premiered “Wasp Network,” de Armas has never had so much weight to carry on her shoulders, but Marta becomes a joy on the strength of her brute sincerity. She’s a pure soul — she literally cannot tell a lie without puking — and that makes her Blanc’s most invaluable ally.
The two of them are a sublime pair, as Craig’s scenery-chewing performance makes him the perfect foil for de Armas’ eminent sweetness (and the scenery here makes for a five-star meal, as production designer David Crank turns the Thrombey house into a palpable maze of strange angles and secret passages, as though someone built a mansion by using a “Clue” board game for blueprints). It’s enough to make the Bond actor’s yee-haw prisoner turn in “Logan Lucky” feel like a warm-up routine; by the time Craig gives a rambling monologue about donut holes that people will be insufferably misquoting for the next six months or 10 years, you’ll have long forgotten that he’s ever played 007.
At one point, that Foghorn Leghorn schtick is described as “CSI: KFC,” as the black sheep of the Thrombey family comes sauntering in around the halfway point. His name is Ransom, and he’s played by Steve Rogers himself, Chris Evans. If “Avengers: Endgame” found him becoming “America’s Ass,” here Evans gets to moonlight as “America’s Asshole.” He’s the only one of Harlan’s kids who’s never even tried to find a job, and he enters the movie like a sarcastic agent of chaos. But, as with everything in “Knives Out,” there’s more to him than meets the eye, and when a huge twist at the end of the first act reframes the entire mystery — and puts Marta right in the middle — Ransom emerges as the only member of Harlan’s kids to share his heart. Love and money may not be the same thing, after all.
Or maybe they’re even more closely related than we thought. As the movie stops to clear its throat and reset the board every 20 minutes or so, “Knives Out” keeps you guessing. Hot off the best “Star Wars” movie ever made and seemingly just entering his creative stride, Johnson has devised a murder-mystery that’s eager to defy your expectations, but unwilling to betray your trust. The film may be more smart than stylish (sharp home décor and that jangly, ticklishly fun Nathan Johnson score notwithstanding), and it may opt for a reasonable outcome over an overwhelmingly shocking one, but “Knives Out” doesn’t let the element of surprise ruin a good story. From its opening moments to its all-timer of a final shot, the film’s greatest pleasures are character-driven, and those pleasures even manage to survive a hectic second act that spends most of its energy laying down track for the third.
Fittingly enough, “Knives Out” is too much fun in the moment for you to dwell on what’s come before (or to be too distracted guessing at where it’s going). Even if you do somehow manage to piece the whole thing together in advance, there’s no way of predicting the joy of watching it all unfold. As playful as Wes Anderson and as literal as James Gray, Johnson has finally devised an original story that’s fueled by his natural gamesmanship — one that doesn’t feel like it’s suffocated by its own design. This is a movie about how the future of this country belongs to those who don’t feel entitled to it, and there’s something beautiful about how it makes that very idea feel like a victory for everyone who’s watching.
“Knives Out” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Lionsgate will release it in theaters on November 27.