Writer-director Rian Johnson, of “Brick” and “Looper,” briefly escapes the stranglehold the “Star Wars” universe has on him with “Knives Out,” a cutting and clever “Clue” murder mystery treated as a lark and played for laughs by a Big Name cast.
It’s the kind of movie where the cinema’s James Bond, Brit Daniel Craig, slings one of those “MO-lasses” Southern accents that Brit actors adore, and is openly mocked for it by others in the movie. On camera. In character.
Playing “the last of the gentleman sleuths,” a private investigator with the unlikely (except in New Orleans) name Benoit Blanc, he is called “CSI: KFC” and “Foghorn Leghorn” by the rich New Yorkers he’s treating as suspects in the murder of their family patriarch. To his face.
The indulgent cop (Lakeith Stanfield) who is ostensibly in charge of the case announces, at the end of a hot pursuit, “That was the DUMBEST car chase of all time.” Yes, there’s a Hyundai Elantra involed, and yes, he is correct.
The patriach’s nurse (Ana de Armas of “War Dogs” and “Blade Runner 2049”) has this condition, a “regurgative reaction to untruths” is how Benoit Blanc puts it. Ask her a question, and if she tries to lie or let another’s lie stand, she throws up.
That may be the silliest plot device ever parked in a whodunit — and the funniest. Johnson deposits a human lie detector in the midst of a family with motives for murder, and an aversion to the truth.
And for politics, there is the pale, Hitler-haired grandson (Jaeden Martell of “St. Vincent”) who sits in the background, staring at his phone, trolling the “snowflakes” and every so often hissing a little anti-immigrant rhetoric — “Dirty ‘anchor baby!'”
Famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, of course) had gathered his family in his suburban Massachusetts mansion, a Victorian estate decorated with all manner of lethal bric a brac and other souvenirs from his decades of publishing.
The centerpiece might be his “throne” of knives, a chair with a gigantic fan of cutlery spread out behind it. Nobody points this out. It’s just there.
Harlan was found in his bed with his throat cut the morning after the party. And even though son (Michael Shannon) and daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) might have motives, and his son-in-law (Don Johnson) and widowed and dependent daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and her daughter (Katherine Langford) could as well, the police have ruled the death a suicide.
But I guess when the famous (thanks to a New Yorker profile) Benoit Blanc shows up, it’s “Let go through that night once more” time.
A clever touch — Johnson gives Craig’s sleuth a hidden “star” entrance. He is in the background of the re-interrogations conducted by Lt. Elliott (Stanfield). Every time the questions or the answers drift off topic, we hear a single note struck on the piano. Benoit is interrupting without interrupting, disapproving and redirecting the questioning.
“Who IS this guy?”
As motives start to pile up and various members of the family cast suspicion on each other, we see Nurse Marta — “like a member of the family” the family insists, although each has her or his own idea of where she moved to this country from — Paraguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay. She’s a walking ball of nerves, and her immigrant mom watching “Murder, She Wrote” in Spanish isn’t calming her at all.
It’s “Columbo” that Johnson takes his story structure from. Flashbacks show us what REALLY happened that night. We know “whodunit,” and what we’re watching is the famed detective, who could be a dolt, try to figure this out via interrogations and magnifying glass walks around the grounds of a writer “who practically lived on a ‘Clue’ board.”
Blanc is forever drawling about “the inevitability of truth” and the “trajectory” of how the crime unfolds as he ever-so-politely grills the gathered family.
“Ah’m sorry t’press, buuuut…”
The plotting here is iffy, and it takes a whole new level of suspension of disbelief to accept the reality (ish) of this scenario. But the cover-up, as with most crimes, is far more interesting and suspenseful. The flurry of jokes, delivered as a blizzard of throw-away lines about what “the reading of (a) will” is REALLY like, for instance, tickle.
And Johnson keeps finding new players to sprinkle over the proceedings and deliver a smirk or chuckle. M. Emmet Walsh plays a technophobe caretfaker and Frank Oz a comically-dismayed but firm-handed lawyer.
He’s managed a couple of neat tricks, luring us in and amusing us so that we don’t notice over two hours have passed, letting us see “the crime” and puzzle out how it will be covered up, exposed or unraveled implicating others.
And he’s given free rein to our once and future Bond, who wrings every laugh he can out of a detective trying to find what fills not just “tha hoooole at the center of this donut” of the mystery, but the “hole in the middle of the DONUT hole,” to boot.
That adds up to “Knives Out” as a proper whodunit, as twist-turny as you might expect, and as amusingly edgy and cutting as its title suggests.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material
Cast: Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Katherine Langford and Christopher Plummer
Credits: Written and directed by Rian Johnson. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 2:10