Sly script and unlikely casting fuel delightful whodunit

Knives Out detectives
Private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, left) searches for clues with the help of police Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, center) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). (Photo by Claire Folger/MRC II Distribution Co.)

By Richard Ades

Unfolding like a typical murder mystery, Knives Out dares viewers to answer the all-important question: Who cast Daniel Craig as a Southern private eye?

No, actually, the question is: Who killed Harlan Thrombey? As for Craig, it eventually becomes apparent that the erstwhile James Bond was cast as Virginia gumshoe Benoit Blanc simply for the hell of it, or perhaps as a sign that writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) plans to have a little fun with the genre film.

And with the help of Craig and additional big-name stars, that’s just what he does.

The tale starts out conventionally enough. After a housekeeper finds successful mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer) with his throat slit on the morning after his 86th birthday, police Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) begin investigating. Forensic evidence points to a suicide, but there are reasons to suspect foul play.

Not the least of them is the presence of Blanc, who is helping with the investigation after being hired by someone whose identity even he doesn’t know. Why would an anonymous benefactor pay the “gentleman detective” big bucks to investigate a suicide?

With Blanc’s help, the police also discover that several members of Harlan’s extended family—all of whom were present for his birthday party the night before—had motives for wishing him harm. Flashbacks show that Harlan had last-minute confrontations with others over misdeeds ranging from larceny to an extramarital affair. In some cases, he simply decided they were no longer worthy of his financial support.

Those caught up in the web of suspicion include:
• Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul and Harlan’s daughter
• Richard (Don Johnson), Linda’s husband
• Ransom (Chris Evans), their playboy son
• Walt (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s son, who runs his publishing house
• Donna (Riki Lindhome, Walt’s wife
• Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Walt and Donna’s internet-trolling son
• Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru and widow of Harlan’s older son
• Meg (Katherine Langford), Joni’s daughter

Knives Out Marta in middle
Embroiled in Harlan Thrombey’s murder investigation are (from left): Trooper Wagner and Lt. Elliott (Noah Segan and LaKeith Stanfield); Harlan’s caretaker, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas); his grandson, Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans); and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

Also around, but considered beyond suspicion, are Fran (Edi Patterson), Harlan’s housekeeper; Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), his loving nurse; and “Great Nana” Wanetta Thrombey, Harlan’s ancient and mostly silent mother.

As the investigation proceeds, Marta becomes an increasingly important resource to Blanc and the police. A young immigrant with an undocumented mother at home, she earns Blanc’s trust because (1) she clearly was Harlan’s closest friend and (2) she has an odd, if disgusting, disorder that renders her incapable of lying without vomiting.

With its plethora of suspects and red herrings, Knives Out at first resembles a typical murder mystery. Surely, we think, it’s only a matter of time before Blanc arrives at the truth. But then writer/director Johnson confounds our expectations by allowing us to learn what happened while the investigators are still in the dark—except that he doesn’t really, because there’s still a last-minute reveal that will take pretty much everyone by surprise.

Further differentiating the flick from the average whodunit is its class-consciousness. Marta, as portrayed by de Armas, comes off as a kind-hearted caretaker who’s been treated shabbily by Harlan’s entitlement-blinded relatives. Not only do they fail to invite her to her beloved patient’s funeral, but they can’t even remember what country she’s from.

In short, Knives Out amounts to sly, quirky fun brought to life by a great, committed cast. Leading it all, Craig revels in the role of the drawling, cigar-smoking Blanc, who may or may not live up to his reputation as a brilliant detective. As with everything else in the flick, we just have to wait and see.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Knives Out (PG-13) opens Nov. 27 at theaters nationwide.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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