The greatest strength of “Knives Out” (2019) is its lack of originality. Director Rian Johnson, fresh off his “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017) glory, seems to have brought from that venerable series a certain “there are only seven stories” wisdom to his star-studded romp of a whodunnit. That awareness is critical to the success of “Knives Out;” where lesser filmmakers would look far and wide to conceal their employment of well-worn mystery ticks, Johnson and “Knives Out” display each familiar beat front and center. A good old-fashioned murder mystery should make its audience feel as if they were playing a game of Clue, and on this front, “Knives Out” delivers exactly what we’re all looking for: a deliciously convoluted caper that’s just too fun to dislike.
Every good mystery needs its macabre mansions and maladjusted murder suspects, and “Knives Out” satisfies both of these cravings. Mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has gathered his family members, a who’s who of smarminess, in his sylvan New England mansion for his 85th birthday. When he is discovered having seemingly slit his own throat, two detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and drawly private investigator Benoit Blanc (a delightfully hammy Daniel Craig) arrive at the mansion to piece together the truth behind the intrigue.
Mark Kermode of The Guardian observed that the film’s set of usual suspects stays “just on the right side of caricature.” We have high-powered anointed successor daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who, of course, got her real estate empire going with a $1 million loan from her father. There’s Linda’s philandering malcontent of a husband, Richard (Don Johnson), who immediately chomps down on every baiting question from the investigators. Chris Evans channels his Johnny Storm days as Ransom, the family’s perpetually jobless playboy. Also circling around the crime scene are Marta (Ana de Armas); Harlan’s caretaker and friend who can’t lie without vomiting; daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a barely conscious, self-styled influencer; and Walt (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s milquetoast son.
Johnson wrote the script, and he cleverly avoids trying to be too coy early on. “Knives Out” is nothing if not cheekily meta, and Johnson places himself at Harlan’s writing desk, laying out a cocktail of motives and scenarios that keeps fingers pointing at any and all of the cast. We learn early on that Harlan had threatened to cut off his financial support of Joni and Ransom and that he had been preparing to fire Walt from their publishing house. Richard could have offed Harlan for his threats to expose his extramarital affairs to Linda. The discovery that Harlan had recently altered his will, electing to leave the bulk of his estate to Marta, along with the anonymous tip that summoned Blanc to investigate, further oils the whodunnit’s gears.
This self-aware treading of all the genre’s usual tropes affords an endearing factor to “Knives Out,” making the audience feel as if they are helping to write the story themselves. Special recognition is in order for Evans, who lends a beautifully fratty misanthropy to Ransom, and Collette, who steals all of her scenes with a truly gorgeous blend of obliviousness and indignation as Joni.
The funhouse in which “Knives Out” takes place similarly embodies the genre’s cliches with love; production designer David Crank crafts a finely-tuned melding of the Bates Motel and the Haunted Mansion, replete with false windows, hidden passages and looming portraits.
“Knives Out” breaks exactly no new ground in cinema. What it does do is serve up a tremendously entertaining ride. Johnson and his cast and crew lean delicately onto the illustrious history of mystery, and while some critics may dismiss their film for it, it’s impossible to find fault in “Knives Out” when it gets all those tropes so right.