It’s hard to imagine having more fun at the movies than with Rian Johnson’s delectable murder mystery “Knives Out,” a wordy delight of fascinating faces, cozy sweaters and fireplaces, and a depraved wealthy family fighting over the estate of their departed patriarch. But within the tightly crafted and finely embossed package, Johnson has smuggled a deceptively radical and empathetic message of acceptance, tolerance and wealth redistribution. It’s “Murder, She Wrote” with a side of political activism.
We meet the tony Thrombey clan upon the unlikely demise of its patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a successful mystery novelist who has built a publishing empire from which his children leech. By all appearances, it seems Harlan has killed himself, with a knife, in his study. Yet, an inquisitive detective (Lakeith Stanfield), his hapless partner (Noah Segan) and a mysterious private investigator (Daniel Craig) just have a few questions for the family, several of whom were financially cut off by Harlan on the night of his birthday party and death. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together, but it will take a keen mind to deduce the different probabilities each family member presents.
Benoit Blanc (Craig), the flamboyant, honey-accented Southern investigator, soon latches onto Marta (Ana de Armas), the good-natured nurse and daughter of an undocumented mother, who became Harlan’s closest friend and confidant in his final years. Blanc trusts in Marta’s “kind heart,” as well as her extreme physical reaction to telling any lie (she upchucks). In a clan of smarmy charmers with varying motivations, Marta becomes our North Star, our moral compass. But she also knows far more than she wants to let on.
Johnson’s screenplay is like origami, folded up upon itself in what seems a nearly impossible situation: Harlan’s body in his study, no discernible motive for suicide, a house full of grifters posing as loved ones and the sweet Marta. How does this equation work out? Along the way, Johnson unfolds parts of the mystery, revealing the workings before completely rearranging everything, transforming it into a completely different beast, working the details and corners just so, lining it all up perfectly.
But at the heart of “Knives Out” is a message about the corrosive, corrupting nature of inherited wealth and what it means to be deserving of the riches a single person accumulates. What renders someone more deserving: their bloodline or the way they treat others? What would the world be like if the daughters of immigrants, if women of color held economic power? It’s a cunning, stunning little moral Johnson tucks away in his star-studded mystery movie.
That’s not to say the other elements pale in comparison. Nothing could be more visually potent than Chris Evans in a soft sweater, drinking an Old Fashioned in a cozy tavern. Add to that Michael Shannon hurling insults, Toni Collette’s pitch-perfect vocal fry, Jamie Lee Curtis sternly smoking cigarettes and Don Johnson casually dropping offensive dad jokes, and it’s an embarrassment of riches. It’s the class warfare picture by way of Agatha Christie that we never knew we needed, but we do, now more than ever.
What “Knives Out” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 2:10 • Rating PG-13 • Content Thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references and drug material • Opening Wednesday