Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’ is a murder mystery masterpiece

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

After the boundary-pushing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in 2017, writer-director Rian Johnson has taken a break from the galactic scale of a major franchise in order to helm an original project: a lavish murder mystery caper in the vein of Agatha Christie. “Knives Out” pays homage to the necessary ingredients of a classic Christie novel — an affluent array of eccentric suspects, a contentious last will and testament, a hammy detective with a corny accent — while simultaneously unsettling them, showcasing once again Johnson’s knack for weaponizing genre convention as a red herring. “Knives Out” is an essential, modern update to the comfort food of a mystery story, one that is riotously funny, extravagantly acted, perfectly written and undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.

“Knives Out” opens with a flourish: Famed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is discovered the morning after his 85th birthday party, having met a fitting end — his throat has been slit in a mysterious manner that could signify suicide or murder. It’s not long before Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the self-described “last of the gentlemen sleuths,” descends upon the Thrombey family’s regal estate to ferret out foul play. The suspect list is comprised of Harlan’s greedy, entitled extended family, all of whom are united by leeching off of Harlan to supplant their own privileged lifestyles and all of whom seem to have a motive, of course. Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse, is the only person in the house to display some compassion for the deceased — and though her smarmy employers wax poetic about how she’s “part of the family,” she wasn’t even invited to the funeral. With Marta’s help and some old-fashioned sleuthing, Blanc sets about navigating this nest of vipers in order to reach a deliciously convoluted conclusion.

The nest of vipers — the outstanding ensemble cast of “Knives Out” — leans into their roles with gusto; any one of them could be a scene-stealer in a less stacked film. Jamie Lee Curtis showcases an icy disposition as Harlan’s daughter Linda; Toni Collette is hilarious as insufferable Instagram influencer Joni; LaKeith Stanfield is the perfect dry straight man to Craig’s irresistibly fun detective; and, of course, a slimy Chris Evans and his white knit sweater manage to be stars of the show.

The interplay between these characters, captured in Johnson’s perennially witty dialogue, is at turns hilarious and cutting. The film’s script finds humor in how quickly and easily the members of the Thrombey clan turn on each other, how blinded they are in their hypocrisy — they sell each other out to Blanc in between cross-cuts in a hilarious early interrogation sequence, and none of them can seem to remember what country Marta emigrated from. The antics of Craig and his police sidekicks provide good-hearted, well-earned laughs, but it is this incisive takedown of the Thrombeys that powers “Knives Out” and separates it as a vitally modern take on the genre. Johnson takes great pains to spotlight characters that were always on the periphery of Christie novels, while unflinchingly dressing down the elitists that were always at their center.

For longtime mystery lovers, the film’s over-the-top homages to the whodunit canon will be immediately obvious and endearing. David Crank’s exquisite production design packs the Thrombey estate with macabre knick-knacks, labyrinthine hallways and crooked secret doors; as one character cheekily observes, Harlan “practically lived in a Clue board.” At one point, someone watches “Murder, She Wrote” on the television. The physical centerpiece of the film is a giant throne of literal knives.

But don’t be fooled: Intertwined with the film’s gleeful retreads and spoofs is a convoluted, subtle and perfectly plotted mystery. Johnson separates himself here as a master of rug-pulling with his Oscar-worthy screenplay — at several points in the film, the pieces seem to be in place only for the cards to be reshuffled once again. Clues are hidden not only in the typical places — stylized flashbacks to establish the timeline of the death, tidbits from questioning suspects — but in innocuous asides, harmless punchlines, random props. There’s unparalleled glee in watching every single puzzle piece come together in the end, culminating in the most satisfying final shot of 2019.

And while the ending of “Knives Out,” in keeping with murder mystery tradition, will likely be the element that dominates audiences’ conversations after they see the film, it only earns its grandeur through the rest of the runtime’s sharp narrative, which acts as the bedrock for its impressive conclusions. Played out by a cast at the top of their game, Johnson’s carefully detailed script blends tropes and clues with targeted social commentary and pleas for goodness in the midst of greed. The intricate layers of “Knives Out” cement it as one of the year’s best films and an absolute blast to watch in the theater. One might even say that it’s a film to die for.

“Knives Out” will be playing at Regal UA Berkeley starting Nov. 26.

Grace Orriss is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].