In 2017 Kenneth Branagh delivered a new version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” that was as big and bloated as a new crime dramedy, “Knives Out,” is sleek and entertaining. Both feature large ensemble casts and twists galore but director Rian Johnson manages to breathe life into the creaky whodunnit genre.
The action takes place in a small up-state New York town on an estate one character says resembles a “Clue” board. In the film’s opening minutes the dramatic theme song sets the stage for what’s to come… murder most foul.
Marta (Ana de Armas), caregiver to Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer), the best-selling mystery writer of all time, is shocked to discover his dead body in his office. Throat slit, knife on the floor beside him, the local police Det. Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) think it is a suicide but a private investigator, the silver-tongued Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), disagrees and says so in an accent as thick as gumbo. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says to the family, “I would like to request that you all stay until the investigation is completed.”
The assembled family stick around, partially at Blanc’s request but mostly for the reading of the will. “What will that be like?” asks Marta. “Think of a community theatre production of the reading of a tax form,” replies Blanc.
As the investigation unfolds everyone seems to have a motive for killing the old man, from his children the imperious Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the hair-trigger tempered Walt (Michael Shannon) to various others, including the spoiled-rotten grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), devious son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) and alt-right troll grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell). These are people who believe they deserve to be rich and won’t hear any talk to the contrary.
The mystery has more layers than a Vidalia onion but Blanc unpeels it, one tier at a time leading up to the film’s climatic reveal.
“Knives Out” mixes pointed jabs at the 1%–Linda started her company with a modest one-million-dollar loan from her father—with social commentary about class divisions in American life to form the backdrop of this engaging mystery. Add to that a collection of characters that would make Miss Marple suspicious and the game is afoot.
Leading the charge is Craig. As Benoit Blanc, the American Poirot, he rides the line between ridiculous and shrewd, chewing the scenery with an accent unheard since the days of Colonel Sanders television ads. His flowery language—”Physical evidence can tell a story with a forked tongue,” he says—gives Craig a chance to show off his comedic side mixed with a physicality that suggests he can get the job done if need be. It’s a dramatic (maybe that’s not the word but you see what I mean) and welcome shift from his grim-faced 007 role.
What begins as a melodramatic comedy in the vein of “Murder by Death,” gets a little darker as the true nature of the crime is presented, and then funnier again in its wild ‘n woolly resolution. It’s an old-fashioned set-up but slowly echoes of modern-day issues of immigration, deportation and white entitlement are introduced to add edge to the story.
Director Johnson, he of “Looper” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” is having fun here, finding a perfect rhythm in the unveiling of the story’s details. We always learn just enough to carry us through to the next twist and it is an enjoyable ride.