Whether it’s an Agatha Christie classic or a cult favorite like “Clue,” a good murder mystery is sure to entertain. Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” features all the most essential trappings of the genre: a gothic mansion full of esoteric set dressing, an ensemble cast with murky motives and poorly-behaved rich people.
The murder in question is that of Harlan Thrombey, an elderly mystery novelist with a house full of eerie curiosities (including an impressive knife collection) and a sizeable clan of entitled offspring.
Some of the most colorful family members are daughter Linda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, a spiky real estate mogul; daughter-in-law Joni, an influencer in the Gwyneth Paltrow mold; and Ransom (Chris Evans) an estranged ne’er-do-well tolerated only by his grandfather.
Tempering out the affluence of the family are maid Fran (Edi Patterson) and kindly nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). In true whodunit fashion, everyone has both a potential motive and a secret.
The plot is satisfyingly twisty, convoluted enough to keep the audience guessing without being confusing. Like most movies with a large ensemble cast, it takes the audience some time to puzzle out character relationships and remember who’s who. But once that’s out of the way, what follows is an entertaining series of murder mystery tropes played out in unexpected ways.
One might expect the film to focus on detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, whose ridiculous southern accent alone justifies the existence of his character. However, the film finds a completely different route, and a wholly unexpected protagonist.
“Knives Out” looks and feels like the platonic ideal of a mystery movie. Autumnal sepia colors create a feel of old money New England. The house that forms the setting for most of the movie is a sprawling gothic mansion, filled with an assortment of appropriately gothic oddities. Any given shot looks like it could become a publicity still, and there’s plenty of visual humor and satisfying detail in the background.
Even the film’s logo is reminiscent of that of the 1985 cult classic “Clue.” The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the characters are thoroughly entertaining, if not fully fleshed out.
However, there is also a contemporary edge to this classic mystery. The family members are all over the political spectrum, ranging from an alt-right tween to a left-wing campus activist and everything in between. In one particularly tense encounter, a family member asks a South American employee to weigh in on a debate about immigration.
There’s also a subtle political undercurrent to the whole situation: most of the family hasn’t made much of their economic advantage, and they cling to their status by the skin of their teeth. The political aspect of the film isn’t necessarily at the forefront all the time, but it’s crucial in understanding who the characters are and why they make certain choices.
In this way, “Knives Out” is not only thoroughly entertaining, but unexpectedly insightful. On one level, it is a solidly entertaining classic murder mystery. On another, it has a surprising amount to say about the ultra-rich in contemporary America. Either way audiences choose to watch it, they should find much to enjoy in this fun and solidly made whodunit.