FILM REVIEW – KNIVES OUT. With Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material. 130 minutes.
In a season of blockbusters and Oscar bait KNIVES OUT, is a neat bit of counter-programming. It’s a comedy-mystery with a strong ensemble cast that has no pretentions beyond wanting to entertain. Like this past summer’s “Ready or Not” – without the horror elements – it has an outsider trying to figure out the complicated secrets of a decidedly insular family.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is mystery writer whose immense success has subsidized the lives of his several children and grandchildren, all of whom have gathered at his ornate mansion which, as one notes, evokes the board game “Clue.” When he’s discovered dead, everyone is a suspect and, somewhat unusually, a private detective (Daniel Craig) is already on site.
There’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) whose husband (Don Johnson) is cheating on her, and Harlan knows. Does that provide a motive for murder? Her sister Toni (Toni Collette) has been able to send her daughter to private school thanks to Harlan, who is now ready to cut her off. Their brother Walt (Michael Shannon) is about to lose control of his father’s business interests, while Linda’s wastrel son Ransom (Chris Evans) was heard arguing with Harlan before his death. Trying to navigate this is not only the detective, but Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who is told she’s considered family but has a few secrets of her own.
The comedy comes not only from the eccentric characters but their lack of loyalty to each other. With Harlan’s estate at stake, and family matters which they want to keep hidden, there’s every reason to find a scapegoat for the murder so the rest can get on with their lives. Through it all the detective – who isn’t even sure who hired him – asks questions and follows leads before arriving at the film’s unexpected and satisfying conclusion. Shot in Massachusetts, the movie makes good use of locations including the Thrombey mansion which becomes yet another quirky character in the film, decorated with a variety of props and mementos from the mystery writer’s career.
“Knives Out” isn’t the sort of movie that garners awards or year-end notices. It simply wants to be a modern-day twist on an Agatha Christie mystery, with some satiric jabs mixed in with the broader humor and red herrings. The cast looks like they were having a great time making it. Viewers should have similar fun watching it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.