Producers: Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman Director: Rian Johnson Screenplay: Rian Johnson Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, Frank Oz, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, K. Callan, Noah Segan, M. Emmet Walsh and Marlene Forte Distributor: Lionsgate
Why does the prodigious output of Agatha Christie remain so popular? It’s not that her prose is exceptional or her characterizations deep, or that she conveys some important message in her stories. It’s simply that she constructed wonderfully outlandish puzzle plots that are simply fun to observe as they work themselves out, on screen as much as on the page. The same can be said of Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” a convoluted comic whodunit in which twist is piled upon upon twist and an exceptional cast savors the chance to misdirect us every which way while we enjoy the cunningly goofy ride they take us on.
The dizzyingly complicated plot, set in the early seventies, revolves around the sudden death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an insanely successful mystery novelist who has died, apparently by his own hand, after the celebration of his eightieth birthday at the family mansion. An investigation of his demise must ensue, of course, and so a local detective (LaKeith Stanfield) is on hand, but he and his partner are joined by celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who, it’s eventually revealed, has been hired by an anonymous client to look into the old man’s death.
Those being queried are Harlan’s relatives. His ultra-aged mother Nana (K Callan) is virtually inanimate, but his two children and their various offspring are all possible suspects. There’s Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul, her slick husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their rascally son Ransom (Chris Evans), and Walt (Michael Shannon), who oversees the family’s publishing house, his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), an internet troll with decidedly right-wing leanings. Also on hand is Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle author who’s the widow of Harlan’s older son Neil, and her progressive college-age daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford).
Then there’s the household staff, consisting of Harlan’s pretty, solicitous nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the mansion’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), and Mr. Proofroc (M. Emmet Walsh), the elderly fellow who presides over the place’s VHS-based security system.
In one of the film’s many flashbacks, the answer to how Thrombey died is apparently revealed, but that’s only one of the many red herrings strewn throughout Johnson’s sharp script, which grows more and more twisted, especially after Harlan’s lawyer (Frank Oz) arrives to read the old man’s newly-minted will.
The cast is obviously enjoying the chance to camp it up, with Craig taking pride of place as the drawling Southern shamus; it’s a performance very different from, but a cousin to, the flamboyant one he gave in Steven Soderberg’s “Logan Lucky.” Most of the others similarly seize on their characters’ eccentricities and play them to the hilt, with Curtis, Johnson and Collette standing out among them but Shannon perhaps even more effective for being relatively restrained. The most normal, and sympathetic, person around—despite her inability to lie without becoming violently ill, a tic that Blanc will take advantage of—is Marta, whom de Armas portrays with a suitably demure mien. (Johnson uses her background for some pokes at the Thrombeys’ casual bigotry and sense of class superiority, but the social commentary doesn’t cut very deep.)
Almost as important to the picture are the technical contributions, which make the estate setting a character in its own right. David Crank’s extravagant production design is a major asset, and cinematographer Steve Yedlin uses it dexterously, with camera moves that enhance the plot’s sense of vertigo; Jenny Eagan’s costumes are eye-catching as well. Bob Ducsay’s editing helps to unsettle the equilibrium, and Nathan Johnson adds a score that complements the twisty quality of the goings-on.
Smartly written, lavishly mounted and engagingly played, this is one weird family reunion you won’t want to miss. Though released for Thanksgiving, it’s definitely no turkey.