Star Wars: The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson has proven he’s a master at playing with genre. His debut film Brick delved into traditional noir detective-story territory, but set the action in a high school. The Brothers Bloom twisted heist and caper conventions, focusing on emotions rather than a physical score to reinvent the meaning of “the perfect con.” And The Last Jedi took the franchise into new territory, subverting expectations about its protagonists, the Jedi Order, and the nature of the Force.
Johnson’s new ensemble mystery Knives Out does the same thing, opening up the trappings of a traditional murder mystery to reveal something new. In a mystery, discovering who committed the crime is exciting, but the truly juicy part is being able to lay out exactly why it all happened, like Hercule Poirot or Columbo. That sums up Knives Out, which is more of a whydunit than a whodunit. Watching the film feels like opening up a present to discover several more presents inside. The biggest box — the question of who killed the victim — isn’t the point. Knives Out is a murder mystery less interested in the death than in the survivors, and opening up those smaller boxes is a delight.
The film kicks off with the 85th birthday celebration of bestselling thriller writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), which sees his entire family gathered at his estate. The next morning, Harlan is found dead, and though the police initially rule his death a suicide — Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) are on the case — celebrity private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been mysteriously summoned to the house, believes Harlan was murdered.
The assembled Thrombeys are shocked, but as Blanc quickly discovers, each family member has their own reason for resenting the late patriarch. Everyone depended on Harlan’s money in one way or another, and on that fateful night, they were all in positions where that flow might be cut off. But bigger questions soon surface, including who called Blanc to the house (even he doesn’t know), and what will ultimately happen to the fortune Harlan left behind.
The “whydunit” aspect of the film kicks into full gear as the family’s idiosyncrasies come to light, and Blanc works with Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s caretaker and confidante, to piece together the circumstances of Harlan’s death. “Why is Harlan dead?” is presented as the primary question, but it quickly cedes the stage to a bigger question: “Why are these people the way they are?” Johnson creates a complicated context for Harlan’s death, looking at how being privy to such an immense fortune has affected each Thrombey’s worldview, and their respective places in contemporary culture.
Imperious eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) thinks of herself as self-made and looks down on her brother Walt (Michael Shannon), who she thinks was handed their father’s publishing company. But her real-estate empire was founded with a million-dollar loan from dad. Similarly, her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) depend on her and Harlan for their income, but act as if they own everything around them. Walt, like Linda, thinks of himself as an independent force, but chafes at his father’s specifications as to how to care for his work as he gives up deals with Netflix to adapt Harlan’s mysteries. Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a widow, relies on Harlan to fund her Goop-esque lifestyle brand, “Flam,” and pay for her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) to attend an expensive college.
As Johnson fleshes out the Thrombeys, he also fleshes out his murder mystery, turning it into social commentary. He makes the murder secondary to a family exploration that feels, at times, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out in its portrayal of would-be liberals who fall back on racist and classist behavior when confronted with any personal challenge.
Walt’s son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is always on his phone, and is described as an alt-right internet troll. Richard brags about having seen Hamilton at the Public Theater before its Broadway run. But conservative or liberal, they all start to think twice about Marta as it seems that they might lose control over Harlan’s money. The Thrombeys all refer to Marta as part of the family, but they didn’t invite her to Harlan’s funeral, and can’t agree on which South American country her family is from. And though they’re kind to her in front of Blanc, they still instinctively hand off their garbage to her when they’re on their own, and rant about immigrants ruining the country.
The further the curtain is pulled back on Marta and the Thrombeys, revealing more complex motives than the stock character guises they present, the more intricate the mystery becomes. These people aren’t as black and white as the archetypes they initially embody. The Thrombeys’ relationships with Marta and with money are similarly complicated. That sense of flowering is just further proof of Johnson’s skill as a filmmaker, as he peels back the layers on an old genre to reveal something vital and new, even pulling something of a reversal of the classic “the butler did it” in making Marta such an integral part of the story.
Knives Out is also, helpfully, pure fun, with car chases staged in compact electric cars, and varying recollections playing out with almost cartoonish speed. The cast is also having a ball playing up the Thrombeys’ most loathsome and comedic aspects, though everyone is second fiddle to Craig and de Armas.
Even so, Johnson keeps the audience guessing. Though he has more on his mind than who did it, Johnson maintains a sense of mystery through the entire movie, pulling the what, where, when, and most importantly, why together to create a version of the mystery-comedy Clue, which he directly references when one Knives Out character describes Harlan’s sprawling mansion. The story Johnson presents neatly falls into the Clue box — it’s a murder mystery with colorful characters and a central location — but it unfolds into something more complicated and immediately relevant, creating a story that’s been dazzlingly updated for a modern audience.
Knives Out is in theaters now.