Starring Daniel Craig. In English, Spanish, and Italian, with English subtitles. Rated PG
The forbidding red-brick house that holds all the humans in Knives Out is as much a character as anyone in this beyond-twisty tale of murder most fun. Like that mansion in The Haunting and the old hotel in The Shining, it’s not just a malevolent collector of our subconscious dreads and dreams. It’s also a celebration of storytelling itself—the fire-pit pastime that keeps us alive while we stare down the darkness.
To start with, there is an old woman who lives in this shoe: a something-genarian (TV veteran K Callan) whose son, a fabulously successful mystery writer called Harlan Thrombey, meets a fitting end on his own 85th birthday. Harlan is played by Christopher Plummer, so that tells you he won’t be gone long, regardless of how he died. His spooky New England manor is where local police interview the gathered suspects, I mean the grieving family. This includes an ecumenical council of roving resentments played by, among others, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Toni Collette.
One of the movie’s galloping gags has every member of the clan naming a different Latin-American country as the birthplace of Dad’s beloved nurse, Marta—except Cuba, where up-and-comer Ana de Armas is actually from. Class assumptions drive all the characters here except for the real detective (the existential sleuths of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, with a touch of Graham Greene) in the form of Benoit Blanc. This tweedy gumshoe is played by Daniel Craig with a mint-julep accent that gives the whole thing a Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil vibe, to offset the New England chill.
Everyone’s alibis, excuses, and grand assertions are projected onto Blanc’s genteel screen, and the audience can draw on countless murder mysteries and real-crime stories to sort out—and be wrong more than half the time. The movie’s slickest sleight of hand comes as writer-director Rian Johnson, taking a breather between Star Wars movies, gradually begins lacing his highballs with the bitters drawn from today’s grotesque social divides. That he manages to do this in such a hugely entertaining format, and in more than two hours of loop-de-loops, is down to his contagious delight in the power of shared stories themselves, regardless what brow they come from.
Sure, the movie has literary pretensions, but while its people may name-check Thomas Pynchon, they spend more time with Hallmark movies and Murder, She Wrote. This celluloid castle is built on countless tall tales, daily reinvented and seemingly as immortal as that ancient mother in the tower—the one who knows exactly when to spill the beans.