Spoilerphobia runs pretty rampant these days when it comes to watching any movie. Almost to the point that where people are angry just to discover, in advance, of something that happens in the opening ten minutes, as if they got lost on their way to the sensory deprivation chamber and stumbled into a review by mistake. And while I find the latter a bit ridiculous, I am sympathetic to the belief that not all the plot of a film should be disclosed by a critic, no matter the rationale. I say all this because Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, as you might already know, is a whodunit mystery that doesn’t just build to a whopper of an ending, but stacks surprises on top of surprises, almost making responsibly writing about it an exercise in obfuscation itself. But as we proceed nothing will be spoiled, so take of that for what you will.
As said before Knives Out is a whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie. But as with most of Agatha Christie’s stories they have a lavish, old-school feeling of a dusty book straight off the shelf. And while there are a few old-school elements to Knives Out, the movie also wants you to know that it takes place in the world of today. 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 party, it’s as if the past dies with him and the present comes rushing in to replace it. Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs his father’s publishing company, can be heard blabbering about selling all the movie rights of his fathers’ books to Netflix (technically that moment is actually a seamless flashback, but it steadily captures how Harlan’s kids are never really shy about their intentions). When famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) shows up to seek 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 of jokes are unearthed with vital importance, it’s no surprise that the profile article in question eventually resurfaces as one of the script’s innumerable plot points. References to everything from Juuling to Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow pop up throughout the rest of the film; maybe not since Hamilton has something been so openly determined to bridge the gap between old history and new language.
Believe it or not there’s even a Hamilton reference too and that might be the most important nod of them all. It comes at the expense of Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s kind-natured South American caregiver, when one of the clueless young cops that’s nipping 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.” But Marta is in a stark contrast with every single member of Harlan’s family, as each one of them is out for blood. As soon as Harlan’s body is discovered, all of the children, grandkids and in-laws are ready to point fingers (with things getting quite heated when the suicide starts looking like something else).
Some of the family members are more likable than others, but none of them are easy to love. Johnson introduces them in a couple different ways, but they all have their own flavor (even though some are one-note or undeveloped). Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) built her own business from the ground up — she only needed a million dollar loan from her dad to do it. Joni (Toni Collette) is basically the head of a Goop-like company, and that’s probably working out well. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on her. Even worse: He’s clearly 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 or Charlie Kirk. But as we’re introducing the family, Johnson is also laying out the architecture of Harlan’s Massachusetts mansion, the timeline of the party that happened the night before, the family history — pages of exposition, all brilliantly masked by the screwball zing of Bob Ducsay’s editing and Johnson’s dialogue. And with all the groundwork laid, the audience is primed to settle into the mechanics of the mystery. But as quickly as Johnson has set up his board, he scatters the pieces, dropping a reveal that seems to upend the whole game just as we’ve learned its rules. It’s a trick he’ll pull again and again in Knives Out, which keeps reinventing itself on the fly. It’s Johnson continuing his subversive, audience-confounding streak that he gleefully owns.
Knives Out essentially picks up where this summer’s Ready or Not left off, as it’s 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 world under immense change, as tradition is being torn up in whatever way it can, and Knives Out is pretty ingenious in how it slowly embodies that change, taking one of the dustiest of genres and reconfiguring it from the inside out. What starts as your simple murder-mystery soon evolves into a brilliant, continually fun examination of how the game has changed in a country where victory can’t afford to be as one-sided as its been. Given the ridiculous depth of the film’s stacked cast (all of whom seem to be soaking up all the fun), it might be surprising that the relatively unfamous de Armas emerges as the film’s protagonist. Phenomenal as she was in Blade Runner 2049, de Armas has never had so much weight thrusted upon her shoulders, but Marta becomes a joy just by the strength of her brute honesty. She’s a pure soul — she literally has a medical condition where she can’t tell a lie without puking — and that makes her Blanc’s most invaluable ally.
With Craig’s scenery-chewing performance and de Arma’s eminent sweetness as a perfect foil, together they’re nothing short of a sublime pair. (That aforementioned scenery is brought to life quite incredibly by David Crank’s intricate production design and Steve Yedlin’s precise cinematography.) It’s enough to make the Bond actor’s hick prisoner in Logan Lucky feel like a warm-up; by the time Craig gives a rambling and very memorable monologue about donut holes, you’ll have long forgotten that he’s ever played 007. At one point, Craig’s Foghorn Leghorn style is called out as “CSI: KFC,” as the black sheep of the Thrombey family comes sauntering in. His name is Ransom, and he’s played by Chris Evans. And well, it’s also a role pretty far from Evans’ stint as Steve Rogers. Ransom is the only one of Harlan’s grandkids 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 after a shift in the first act, Ransom emerges as the only member of the family to share Harlan’s heart. Love and money may not be the same thing, after all.
Throughout Knives Out is often fittingly too enthralling and fun for you to dwell on what’s come before (or to be too distracted guessing at where it’s going). And lets say that even if you somehow manage to piece the whole thing together ahead of schedule, there’s no way of predicting the joy of watching each plant and payoff unfold. It all also turns out to be a film as timely as it is timeless, nestling a surprisingly pointed story of class conflict at the center of a investigation, championing decency in the face of selfishness and narrow-minded privilege. It’s a movie about how the future of this country belongs to those who don’t feel entitled to it. And that’s captured in the film’s all-timer of a final shot, showing while the knives may come out, the hierarchy can afford a little shift this time. It’s a payoff, so moving in its relevance, that simply couldn’t be spoiled, even by a critic careless enough to spill plot points like admissible evidence. With Knives Out Rian Johnson hasn’t just delivered an old-school whodunnit but a complex puzzle-box, a mystery so engrossing and fiendishly well-engineered that its modern touches and themes are all the more satisfying.
Knives Out will be released into theaters on November 27