GREG'S GRADE: A
Before he was catapulted into the international spotlight with the wildly divisive "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (2017), writer-director Rian Johnson specialized in smaller-scale genre exercises, the kind of movies that generally don't attract large audiences but gain the admiration of most who see them. I'm talking about the high school noir of "Brick" (2005), the high-concept-driven yet surprisingly heady sci-fi of "Looper" (2012).
Now that he's returned from a galaxy far, far away, Johnson is back to his old tricks, taking on an Agatha Christie-style whodunit in "Knives Out."
Johnson revels in the trappings of the genre, setting the bulk of the film at the elegant estate of celebrated mystery writer and family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), found dead in act one, scene one; introducing a host of eccentric characters, i.e., suspects, all with viable motives; and unleashing a master detective to get to the bottom of it all.
Found with his throat slit and a knife in his hand, Harlan Thrombey's death appears to be an obvious suicide, and that's the conclusion of police Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). Yet someone anonymously hires the renowned, Southern-fried P.I. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to take a closer look.
Blanc's investigation brings much of the extended Thrombey family back to the estate for questioning, including eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a driven, self-made businesswoman; son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), who's benefited greatly from joining the Thrombey family while contributing nothing of value himself; problem child grandson Ransom (Chris Evans); Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of Harlan's deceased son, now relying on her father-in-law to keep her and her daughter (Katherine Langford) afloat financially; Walt (Michael Shannon), Harlan's youngest son who runs the family publishing business; and Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's trusted caregiver who's closer to him than anyone in his bloodsucking family.
In the intricately constructed first act, Blanc and his police associates interview the family members individually. A masterclass of editing, Johnson and Bob Ducsay, his editor since "Looper," weave their conflicting stories together as a picture of the night in question — Harlan's 85th birthday party — gradually comes into focus. It quickly becomes apparent that, even if they aren't guilty of murder, everyone has something to hide.
Blanc gains an ally in Marta, who has a specific physical reaction when she tells a lie and may have been the last person to see Harlan alive.
Johnson's script, full of delicious twists and turns, throws in enough misdirection that we, along with Blanc, continue to question even after the probable scenario seems to have been laid out rather succinctly in the second act. Much of that is due to the expertly drawn characters and stellar cast, each of whom brings so much in a relatively brief amount of screen time.
Craig is an absolute delight in the movie's showcase role. With his deep Southern drawl, Blanc — described as "the last of the gentleman sleuths" — prowls through the movie like Foghorn Leghorn in a tweed suit, his affable demeanor and courteous affectations masking a mind that suspects everyone and never stops considering the case from every angle.
While it's a shock initially to hear that accent from an actor best known for playing the uber-British James Bond, Craig makes it his own, his dialogue quickly taking on a lyrical quality. It's exaggerated, of course, as is virtually everything else in the film as Johnson celebrates and gently pokes fun at the conventions of the genre.
A modern take on a classic brand of storytelling, "Knives Out" is incredibly well crafted and endlessly entertaining.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references and drug material. 130 minutes.
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