Knives Out posits itself as a murder mystery whodunit, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. Indeed it is. There’s a large gathering, a death and a quirky inspector who deciphers the evidence, all done in a cheeky, entertaining way. There’s a lot to like here, and plenty of potential.
The fact that it goes awry in its second half shouldn’t detract from the joy that it exists in the first place.
Set in a vast suburban Massachusetts estate, the Thrombey family has gathered to celebrate the 85th birthday of its patriarch, best-selling mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). By midnight he’s dead, and everyone is a suspect. Oldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) has had success on her own, but her husband Richard (Don Johnson) is a deadbeat and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is an entitled trust fund brat. Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the family’s publishing empire, and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) fancies herself a “lifestyle guru.”
All are financially dependent on Harlan, and don’t take it kindly when he threatens to cut them off. Harlan’s only friends in the house are his maid Fran (Edi Patterson) and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). Investigating Harlan’s death are Lt. Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), as well as private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, imagining Hercule Poirot had a southern drawl), who literally doesn’t know who hired him for the job.
Lies, misdirection and avarice ensue, all to our campy delight in the first hour as our minds race with possibilities. It’s part of the fun to observe not just the obvious, but also to guess at the more subtle clues, ones that feel innocuous yet are extremely important.
What’s more, the setting and production design are perfect: Autumn iscold, rainy and overcast in New England, and the house, as noted by one of the characters, feels straight out of Clue. This is ideal for a gradual buildup of evidence that leads to a suspenseful climax, with an additional twist or two thrown in for good measure.
Oh, the movie this could’ve been!
Instead, inexplicably, writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) makes an odd choice. There’s a big reveal half-way through that will not be divulged in this spoiler-free review. Suffice to say far too much is given away too soon, rendering the rest not necessarily anti-climactic, just not as tense nor engaging as it could be. The focus becomes too narrow, too many characters are marginalized, and the guessing that’s part of the fun is largely lost.
Yes there are still things to figure out until the very end, but it’s not what you expect to be figuring out, and darn if you don’t lose part of the sport that way.
As a whole Knives Out isn’t entirely unsatisfying, it’s just not as fulfilling as its promise suggests. Given its Thanksgiving release and PG-13 rating, it’s an enjoyable family film that offers plenty to discuss afterward, though you won’t necessarily be discussing how good it is.
KNIVES OUT ( 2½ ) Directed by Rian Johnson • Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis • Rated PG-13 • 130 minutes • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Century Marina, Lighthouse Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.