The turkey may be dry, the cranberry sauce may be canned. The only surefire feast this Thanksgiving may be Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” a deliciously funny and wicked comedy-mystery that relocates a classic Agatha Christie-style whodunit into a 2019 dysfunctional household.
The setting is a forbidding New England manor house, every nook and cranny stuffed with strange doodads and sculptures, including a mandala made out of gleaming knives. It’s the home of Harley Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the country’s most successful living mystery writer.
Well, living until recently. Harley is found dead in his study, apparently by his own hand, the morning after his 85th birthday party. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but some mysterious client has hired “gentleman sleuth” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to assist local police (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) to see if foul play was involved. I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a mystery if it wasn’t.
There’s no shortage of suspects, from Norton’s favorite daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson), and their ne’er-do-well son Ransom (Chris Evans, gleefully torching his good-guy Captain America image). Or was it Norton’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), who lives in his father’s shadow, running his business empire? Maybe it’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), who runs a GOOP-like “wellness” company.
Everybody has a motive. About the only member of the household who seems to be above suspicion is Norton’s live-in nurse and confidante Marta (Ana de Armas), a kindly caregiver so pure of heart that the thought of lying literally makes her ill.
Johnson’s brilliantly constructed screenplay keeps the audience off-balance and guessing. About 40 minutes in, Johnson abruptly seems to hand us the solution to the entire mystery, and “Knives Out” shifts gears into becoming more of a Hitchcockian noir.
But just when we’ve acclimated to that change-up, he jerks the rug out from under us again. And again. This is a mystery that not only has truth-tellers and liars, but liars who think they’re telling the truth and truth-tellers who think they’re lying. It’s amazing that Johnson’s intricate clockwork screenplay all fits together so snugly at the end.
The characters are sharply drawn, and Johnson has armed all the actors with verbal darts to fling at each other. They appear to be having a ball. Much as a thick Southern accent loosened up Craig in “Logan Lucky,” Craig brings charm and a little silliness to the Mississippi-bred Blanc. And it’s especially enjoyable to see Collette, who plays a lot of heavy dramatic roles, cast against type as a dippy New Age guru. I don't mention costume design enough, but Jenny Eagan's ensembles illustrate every character beautifully, from Walt's sad sweaters to Linda's powder-pink power suits.
Viewers likely will be so focused on unraveling the mystery that Johnson’s subtle satire of class struggle might not register at first. While the Thrombeys are a privileged white family of one-percenters constantly at each others’ throats for the family inheritance, the household’s one redeeming character is an immigrant. (One of the film’s many running gags is that the Thrombeys, while insisting that Marta is “like family,” keep forgetting which country she’s from.)
Johnson is a relentlessly clever writer-director (“Looper,” “The Brothers Bloom”), and sometimes his twisty screenplays may go a twist too far, leaving audiences struggling to catch up. That’s not the case with “Knives Out,” which is as tricky as anything he’s done, but leaves the audience completely satisfied by the end. On that, at least, your whole family can agree on.