Knives Out Review: Family Splatters

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out may lack the ingenious plotting and tightly-contained nature of murder mystery author Agatha Christie’s best stories, but as homage it does sturdy, entertaining work. Soft-spoken Cajun detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) stands for Christie’s dandyish Hercule Poirot, investigating the death of mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Meanwhile, Harlan’s anxious, principled private nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) tries to keep her own secrets under wraps. The plot trapises along amiably through enough twists and turns that things only bog down for a short stretch near the film’s midpoint with an overlong cat and mouse game concerning video and footprint evidence.

The mystery unfolds in Harlan’s mansion, complete with secret passages and a hidden study. The film’s set design is delightfully magpie-like, every indoor shot packed with antique shop bric-a-brac and intricate woodwork. A halo of knives on a wire frame anchors many of Benoit’s interviews with the family, and while the setup for the callback it provides in the film’s final moments is a bit forced, it’s no less entertaining for it. Otherwise Knives Out is visually competent with the occasional flourish, such as its cuttingly picturesque final shot of two parties staring at each other from a balcony and the driveway below it. 

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The ways in which the Thrombey family embodies privileged callousness form the meat of the film, from Ransom’s (Chris Evans) dissolute playboy antics to Meg’s (Katherine Langford) dizzyingly expensive liberal education and self-pitying guilt over threatening to bring ICE down on Marta’s immigrant mother. It cuts to the quick about wealth’s allegiance only to itself and about the lengths to which the rich will go to stay rich, and to keep others out of the club. Its jabs at the insipid cultural adulation given to Hamilton by liberals and conservatives alike and at the hypocrisy of the nominally progressive rich citizens may not be revelatory, but they’re varied and entertainingly pointed.

There’s a slightly saccharine taste to some of the film’s moralizing, as with Blanc’s repeated assertions that Marta is a good nurse with a good heart. de Armas does good work in the part, by turns nauseously honest and cuttingly intelligent, but a significant chunk of the film is men telling her how virtuous she is before doing her some colossal unasked-for favor. Perhaps a film about racist hypocrisy made by a white man is inevitably going to have an edge of the same guilt Johnson lampoons in his characters here, but that makes it no less tiresome to watch.

In the end, though, Knives Out is delightful and diverting. It is a clever whodunit with a solid script, its heart in the right place, and a terrific cast. And watching Toni Collette’s GOOP-parodying lifestyle guru Joni scuttle after Marta while alternately expressing solidarity and threatening to contest Harlan’s will is worth the price of admission on its own.