Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Photo: Lionsgate)
★★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Rian Johnson
STARS Daniel Craig, Chris Evans
(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)
It’s murder by death in Knives Out, a delightful mystery further buoyed by a marvelous performance from Daniel Craig.
Craig isn’t exactly known for comedic roles, although he was amusing as the high-spirited convict Joe Bang in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. He’s even better here, playing a celebrated detective named Benoit Blanc.
With Craig in the role, it’s fair to assume this lawman will basically be a calm and collected cousin to James Bond. Instead, his initially oddball demeanor suggests that he might be the reincarnation of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. But hold on: This private eye is (unlike Clouseau) highly intelligent, the type whose occasionally eccentric behavior and ability to stay in the background works in his favor. Does this make him another Columbo? Not quite. In short, Craig’s Benoit Blanc is a complete original, and, given the disappointment that was Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, I would have more faith in another murder-mystery featuring Blanc than in Branagh’s upcoming return to the role of Hercule Poirot.
Writer-director Rian Johnson, whose active imagination previously gave us Brick, Looper, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, here serves up a murder-mystery that doesn’t exactly unfold as one might expect. The victim is successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found dead the morning after the entire family gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday. Can we assume the butler did it? Alas, no, since the Thrombey clan doesn’t employ a butler. It does employ various other servants — chief among them would be Harlan’s personal caretaker, a young Hispanic woman named Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, the AI Joi in Blade Runner 2049). Treated with condescension by several members of the family, Marta seems to be one of the few people who cared more about Harlan than about his money.
So whodunnit? The suspects are many. In addition to Marta and fellow servant Fran (Edi Patterson), there is Harlan’s strong-willed daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) as well as his weak-willed son Walt (Michael Shannon). Harlan’s other son, Neil, passed away a while back, so he can safely be ruled out — the same can’t be said for Neil’s wife Joni (Toni Collette), a flaky health nut whose mere presence annoys the other household occupants. Then there are the grandkids of varying ages: the handsome layabout Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), the college-age Meg (Katherine Langford), and the alt-right teenage troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Add a couple of in-laws (Don Johnson and Riki Lindhome) but rule out Harlan’s older-than-the-hills mother (K Callan), and there are enough potential murderers to fill a paddle steamer lazily heading down the Nile.
Knives Out doesn’t exactly follow the blueprint of the typical murder-mystery, and those who like their crime sagas to end like any given episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (i.e. the last-minute reveal of the culprit) might initially be disappointed with this picture’s narrative swerves. But any sorrow is quickly replaced with jubilation, as it soon becomes clear that Johnson has more than one mystery up his sleeve. And there to piece together the puzzle and crack the case is Benoit Blanc: erudite, excitable, and armed with a license to thrill.