Rian Johnson unsheathes an entertainingly nasty, if insubstantial detective mystery with his new film, Knives Out. Back in 2005, his debut movie Brick (a high-school thriller) paid tribute to the hardboiled noir genre. Now he does the same thing for cosy crime, although there is nothing that cosy about it.
Knives Out has a country house full of frowning suspects, deadpan servants and smirking ne’er-do-wells and an amusing performance from Daniel Craig as Benoît Blanc, the brilliant amateur sleuth from Louisiana who annoys the hell out of one and all by smiling enigmatically, occasionally plinking a jarring high note on the piano during the drawing-room interrogation and pronouncing in his southern burr: “Ah suh-spect far-wuhl play!”
It’s a Cluedo-board romp in the manner of Agatha Christie or TV’s Murder, She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury. And Mr Blanc, with his cigar and the studied insolence and timing of his questions, has something of Peter Falk’s much-missed Lieutenant Columbo.
Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, the 85-year-old bestselling mystery novelist whose chef d’oeuvre is 1000 Knives, a masterpiece that has inspired a bizarre decorative centrepiece in the drawing room of his vast rococo mansion: a huge “wheel” of sharp knives. For his birthday, this wealthy patriarch invites his dysfunctional clan for a big party – realtor daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson); his son, Walt (Michael Shannon), tasked with administrating his lucrative literary estate; grasping, widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), whose own daughter Meg (Katharine Langford) depends on Harlan to pay her postgrad college fees. Ransom (Chris Evans) is his spoilt, rich grandson, and sulky teenager Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is a creepy alt-right internet troll.
At this party, there are raised voices and whispered talk of the will getting changed, and so, when housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) later finds Harlan with his throat cut, Detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) is disinclined to accept the family’s bland assurances that he killed himself. He and private investigator Blanc have one ace in the hole: Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana De Armas) knew Harlan best, and she has a weird psycho-physiological quirk. She can’t tell a lie without vomiting. But can she reveal the whole truth? And who is the anonymous person who has hired Blanc simply by sending him an envelope full of cash?
Any Christie fan is going to be on high alert for plot points to be second-guessed, third-guessed, fourth-guessed – aware, naturally, of the sensational and legendary Christie reveals in classic texts such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express and her stage play The Mousetrap. Christie’s ingenuity and audacity inspire all sorts of sophisticated narrative readings, and the film scholar and superfan Gilbert Adair famously wrote a series of self-aware whodunnit pastiche novels in the much-loved Christie style.
Knives Out is, however, a bit more trad than this. The family clan, and that preposterous house, look as if they have been fed backwards through the Wes Anderson machine, extracting the quirkiness. What we have is a straightforward murder mystery, but it is told with gusto and humour. Craig is a nice comic performer, his lips forever pursed in a knowing half-smile, savouring the suspects’ mendacity like a fine wine.
Then there is the satire. The Thrombey family display a predominantly conservative strain in their political discussions, an arrogant vagueness on the subject of where in South or Central America Marta comes from, and a distinct sense that migrants are not entitled to all that much in America, which makes the reading of the will even more traumatic for them. These grownup princelings and princesslings are not dissimilar to the Trump and Murdoch inheritors, or like the Roy household in Jesse Armstrong’s satire Succession.
I have to admit wanting more formal narrative wizardry from Knives Out in the way of third-act twist, counter-twist and counter-counter-twist. The plot is certainly really complicated, but I wanted the finger of suspicion to move more teasingly from suspect to suspect. I expected the rug to be pulled out from under me, replaced, pulled out again, challenging everything I had seen with my own eyes. That doesn’t quite happen. But there’s a great deal of lively and funny shenanigans with poisons and antidotes, and Johnson delivers a stab of cheerful cynicism.
• Knives Out is released in the UK and the US on 27 November and in Australia on 28 November.