Knives Out Celebrates Great Actors Being Bad for Laughs

The expansive and very entertaining cast of Knives Out.
The expansive and very entertaining cast of Knives Out. CLAIRE FOLGER © 2018 MRC II DISTRIBUTION COMPANY L.P.

Knives Out

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jaime Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Michael Shannon. Now playing at multiple theaters.

It feels like I cannot remember the last time I had such pure fun at The Movies as I did with Knives Out. I was expecting as much, because writer-director Rian Johnson is a goddamn treasure, but this surpassed even my very high expectations. Johnson has outdone himself and found a sort of cinematic zen balance between his early ultra-quirky films — 2005's high-school noir Brick, his kooky and wonderfully unclassifiable con-artist dramedy The Brothers Bloom from 2008 — and his little Star Wars movie from a couple years ago with this.

Knives Out is the sort of movie we used to see in the 1970s: adult-skewing but with a blockbuster vibe, oddball but with undeniable mainstream appeal. It's an Agatha Christie–esque murder mystery, at once deliciously retro and decidedly modern, with an all-star cast of thousands in which any of your favorite faces could be the killer. It's effortlessly suspenseful, keeping you guessing right until the end. It's big-name actors being funny, actors whom you may not have realized before could be funny (or have forgotten, because it's been so long). But it's a dry funny — so dry. Deadpan, even. So much dead. I was dead by the end, wrung out by pleasure.

Not as killed as Christopher Plummer. He is Harlan Thrombey — ahem — a murder-mystery novelist, and he turns up dead the morning after his 85th birthday party. As the film opens, his big extended family has gathered at his gloriously gothic Addams Family-style mansion for the funeral and soon for the reading of his will; Harlan was hugely successful and very wealthy, and there's a lot of money to go around. Or so his delightfully horrible adult children and their horrible spouses and their mostly adult, mostly horrible children hope.

And also there is Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc, a detective famous in a way that detectives have not been since the 1930s, or the 1880s, and yet he is anyway. Blanc is there to investigate the death, which had been ruled suicide, except someone — the anonymous person who hired Blanc — thinks maybe it was murder. He will interview the suspects — that is, the family members — in the bonkers sitting room dominated by a wall of knives, so that it looks like they're all trying out the Iron Throne to see how it fits their nasty asses. Much of the tale is told via flashbacks as the suspects — er, the grieving — relate the events of the evening in question. Who can we trust? Probably no one.

One of the absolute joys of this entirely entertaining jape is how it feels bigger than it is. Blanc comes complete with a whole history that is only hinted at yet feels as rich as his silky Southern accent; you walk out of Knives Out wanting to instantly take a deep dive into all the other juicy mysteries you know he has solved. Every character here is a tapestry of gleeful awfulness, the quantity and quality of which is only just barely scratched. Particularly amusing is Chris Evans, as Harlan's asshole grandson Ransom; you can taste the exuberance with which the actor is running fast in the opposite direction from the wholesome Captain America persona that has defined him for the past decade.

But everyone is having fun here, and it is infectious: Toni Collette and Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon as horrific people with strong motives for murder; LaKeith Stanfield and Ana de Armas are, respectively, the cop accompanying Blanc and Harlan's nurse, and since they're not family, they're nice — or are they?

When I saw that anyone could be the killer here — if, indeed, there was even a murder at all — I mean it. This is not a movie the twists and turns of which you will guess in advance, and whenever you think you have it all figured out, the movie will trip you up again, and you will love it for tricking you. My face hurt from grinning the whole time, and I can't wait to see it again and again. Knives Out is going to be one of those movies that, when I come across it while channel surfing in a couple of years, will suck me in every time. If you could design a movie to be Everyone's Favorite Movie, this is what it would look like. Except there's nothing so crass or calculated about Knives Out. This is honest popcorn nonsense, rendered with care to be endlessly diverting.

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