KNIVES OUT

★★★★

Opening Wednesday, Nov. 27


Before he divided the Star Wars fanbase into warring camps and helmed three of the best episodes of Breaking Bad, Rian Johnson began his directorial career by indulging his adoration for detective stories (Brick) and caper comedies (The Brothers Bloom). 

Two years after The Last Jedi, Johnson returns to his roots in Knives Out, a droll takeoff on the drawing-room whodunit, like Agatha Christie meets Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers.

The morning after the Thrombey family gathers at the remote Massachusetts manse of its patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer), for his eighty-fifth birthday, the wealthy crime novelist is found dead in his study, apparently having committed suicide by slitting his own throat. 

Suspecting foul play, an unknown party employs the services of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a celebrated private detective. With wry wit and a Foghorn Leghorn accent as thick as molasses, Blanc assists the police in their investigation of the dysfunctional Thrombey clan, gradually uncovering reasons why some might want Harlan dead. 

Youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) was about to be ousted from the family’s publishing business. Son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) was about to be outed for cheating on Harlan’s daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis). Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) was about to have her monthly stipend cut off for swindling, which could force her daughter, Meg, to drop out of college. Grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) was overheard arguing with Harlan the night of his demise, but no one knows why.

At the center of the mystery is Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s young caretaker and most trusted confidante. Because she’s afflicted with the bizarre inability to lie without vomiting, Marta proves an invaluable source of family insight for Blanc. She also figures prominently in two significant choices Johnson makes. 

First, he reveals key circumstances about the way Harlan died via flashbacks, leaving the audience to wonder if there’s even more to the mystery. Then, there’s a will reading that turns the intrigue on its head.

There’s a running gag that no one really knows where Marta was born. Her mother came to the U.S. illegally, and her story is an offshoot of some Trump-era immigration politics that, at first, feel shoehorned into the story. But gradually, Johnson manages to zing the zeitgeist, suggesting that the regressive politics of today might be just a speed bump in the march of history. 

The final shots are powerhouse portraits of the tension between American oligarchy and America’s promise. With shrewd plotting and razor-sharp repartee, Knives Out is one of the wittiest films of the year. It might also be one of the most hopeful.

arts@indyweek.com