"I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects." — Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig)
The Agatha Christie-styled whodunit has been a cinema staple for almost a century, having reached its broadest audience and exposure with 1974's Murder on the Orient Express.
You know the formula: corpse + house, train or ship full of suspicious guest stars + inordinate number of clues, many of them red herrings + brilliant, world-renowned detective = delightful murder mystery, where fun is the goal, more so than even solving the crime. (Let’s set aside the question of how a murder case is supposed to be "fun.")
In writer/director Rian Johnson's Knives Out (the title ostensibly a reference to the 2001 Radiohead song) the corpse belongs to Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, himself an author of such mystery books, who has amassed an enormous fortune. Naturally, there's an entire family surrounding Harlan, all dependent on his largesse, and all certain they will be favored in his will.
After a number of loud, half-overheard verbal fights between family members and himself on the evening of his 85th birthday party, Harlan turns up dead, an apparent suicide. An unknown someone thinks otherwise, retaining esteemed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to discover if the murderer was Toni Colette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Katherine Langford, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell, or Michael Shannon — if any of them.
In full-on Hercule Poirot mode — though Craig effects a Southern U.S. accent, not a Belgian one — Blanc proceeds to interview the surviving Thrombeys to get their version of what happened that fateful evening. Craig has an enormously good time hamming it up, serving up cornpone wisdom interspersed with his criminal insights. Indeed, each of the actors milk their suspicious characters for all they're worth. When this many people are having so much fun, you can't help but have some, too. The game is afoot.
But Johnson's story and direction take a sharp turn from most entries in the murder mystery genre. We don't see the film through investigator Blanc's eyes, nor even through the eyes of the guest stars. It's not really even Craig's film. We see the events through the eyes of and share the sensibilities of Harlan's part-time nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), which propels the film in an entirely different direction and imbues it with a political perspective that I didn't anticipate.
Only Marta, Harlan's devoted nurse and the anchor baby of an undocumented mother, understands the various family members. She already knows things about them and about that evening that Blanc can only guess at. Standing apart from the other characters, Marta isn't played for laughs, and de Armas delivers a highly layered dramatic performance that's imminently Oscar-worthy.
Among the Thrombeys, it's Chris Evans who gets the meatiest role, proving that he'll have a career after Captain America.
Besides her genuineness and her ethnicity, Marta possesses one other characteristic that becomes integral to the plot: She cannot lie without having, as Blanc describes it, a "regurgitative reaction," an attribute that is, in a couple of scenes, played for laughs, and in a couple of scenes not, as her inability to lie distances and differentiates her from the Thrombeys.
Audiences have proven for decades that they love books and movies about funny, rich, mostly white people murdering each other. But once word of mouth circulates, will those audiences embrace a film with such an obvious social stance? Maybe. Maybe not. Johnson’s previous film, 2017’s The Last Jedi, rankled some viewers by injecting contentious political perspectives into Star Wars, but still topped $1.3 billion at the global box office.
Regardless, Knives Out is still one of the most smartly written and directed films of the year — and one of the most fun.