Agatha Christie’s estate in England has made a concerted effort over the past few years to revitalize the late, great author’s works, particularly in adaptations for the big and small screen. Kenneth Branagh and John Malkovich both rebooted Hercule Poirot in various vehicles, and the BBC produced two critically-acclaimed TV movies with And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution. Still, the greatest reinvigoration of the Christie conceit may very well be filmmaker Rian Johnson’s new comedy-mystery Knives Out. It’s not a sanctioned work of the estate, but it is a homage to the world’s greatest mystery writer from start to finish. It’s also a deconstruction of her tropes too, as well as a savvy slap to all the conventions of the oodles of inferior mysteries that permeate our screens.
Johnson clearly knows his Christie and riffs on her style throughout, while satirizing and twisting it into its own animal too. The filmmaker includes all of her clichés from a long list of possible suspects to a drawing-room finish where the sleuth explains all. He knows her oeuvre so well that he’s able to honor it and screw with it too, ripping apart its pieces, moving them around, and making the hoary conventions of the procedural genre feel almost completely fresh and vital. Further examining Johnson’s accomplishments here will require some mild spoilers, but nothing will be exposed beyond the first 30 minutes. But indeed, what a first half-hour it is.
Right off the bat, Johnson tells us who died, how he died, and the motives of every one of the victim’s treacherous family. The victim is Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, as shrewd as ever), a mega-successful mystery author and patriarch of an affluent East Coast family. He’s been found in his home with his throat cut. The coroner ruled it a suicide, but after hearing the testimony of his awful and entitled kin, we suspect otherwise.
Harlan’s awful brood includes Walt (Michael Shannon), the weak head of the family’s publishing company, cheating son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) stepping out on his brittle wife Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and mooching daughter-in-law Joni (a scene-stealing Toni Collette). She may be all sweetness and sunshine, but she’s been stealing Harlan’s money to prop up her beauty business and pay college tuition for her spoiled teen Meg (Katherine Lankford).
Johnson tweaks Christie’s tropes here, introducing this long list of scoundrels with title cards so we know them instantly. He also immediately exposes their lies through interviews conducted by local cop Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Standfield), aided by the private eye mysteriously hired to investigate Harlan’s death. That P.I. is one Benoit Blanc, and as played by Daniel Craig, he’s a wickedly witty Southern parody of all of Christie’s eccentric sleuths.
Blanc speaks with a genteel drawl that would make Foghorn Leghorn sound like Henry Higgins. He fancies tweed suits, 8” cigars, and blunt put-downs he flicks about like so much cigar ash. His loathing of the Thrombey family is instantaneous, as he exposes all of their lies in what it would take Miss Marple two hours to uncover. The only person in the house earning his respect is Harlan’s caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas). She’s such a good soul that she spontaneously vomits if she fails to be honest. Watching the comely de Armas upchuck repeatedly is one of the film’s funniest running gags.
Even quicker than Blanc’s handiwork is the revelation of just how Harlan died. Johnson pulls the first of many rugs out from under the audience by showing what happened in a precise flashback. It’s ballsy and cheeky, suggesting Johnson clearly has a lot more cards to play, and indeed, he does. By removing the who from the whodunnit, Johnson sets up the opportunity to showcase even better mysteries swirling all about the gruesome death.
In the next hour and a half, the shrewd writer/director showcases all kinds of additional skullduggery including another murder, car chases, blackmail schemes, arson, and a secret will. Johnson does well by his cast too, giving a fantastically snide, supporting part to Captain America himself, Chris Evans. Johnson even gives Frank Oz a deliciously droll small part as the family’s long-suffering attorney. All of these machinations play like Christie, albeit on steroids, with so many fun twists and turns that it makes for a hoot and a half.
Even more surprising than Johnson’s serpentine narrative, his vamping of the genre, and a deft ability to the story in on itself like a virtual mobile strip, is the surprising seriousness he paints around the edges. Plummer and de Armas are fantastic together in a very tense and moving 10-minute scene together, and Johnson ensures that her character injects pathos throughout to counter all the snark around her.
The whole cast excels, though Riki Lindome and Jaeden Martell, as Walt’s wife and son, don’t have nearly enough to do. Some characters, like those of Johnson and Curtis, fade as the story continues on too. Still, Craig has never been so loose and wry onscreen, and he’s clearly having a ball playing such a verbose, country-fried ham. He nails his lengthy drawing-room speech at the end too, one that would surely have amused Christie.
Johnson loves the mystery genre and keeps his camera close to the faces of his characters to catch every nuance of deceit flashing across the mugs of these nasty players. The score, editing, and production design are all bright and fun, never letting things get too dark. And one has to appreciate additional genre touchpoints that Johnson ladles in throughout. Is that Andrew Wyke’s life-size, laughing sailor from 1972’s Sleuth in Nathan’s den? I believe so.
Finding new ways to tell stories is part of every writer or filmmaker’s task and Johnson is exceptional at usurping expectations. He has twisted convention on its ear in noir (Brick in 2005), sci-fi (Looper in 2012), and action-adventure (The Last Jedi in 2017). With Knives Out, he may very well have created his most accessible and entertaining film to date. It’s a crowd-pleaser, one that would’ve delighted Dame Agatha, no mystery about it.
View the trailer of Knives Out below: