Knives Out reminds me of a story I once heard about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had only been in office a few months before he was swamped by shady characters. Every fat cat in Washington thought they had helped put him in office, and now they wanted the cushy jobs and kickbacks that were coming to them. Ever succinct, Lincoln surveyed the sleazebags surrounding him and sighed: “There’s too many pigs for the tits.” Knives Out shows us a litter of chubby piglets, ravenous and unredeemable. Once their milk runs dry, they’ll do anything–even murder–to get back what they feel they deserve.
The story begins as these righteous assholes assemble for the birthday of their patriarch and benefactor. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has amassed a fortune by cranking out elaborate murder mysteries. Now, in his twilight years, the sensible and grounded Harlan finally sees that he’s been propping up a family of freeloaders. He takes the occasion of his birthday party to shut off the spigot of money that’s funding their easy lifestyles. The next morning, the cleaning lady (Edi Patterson) shows up and finds–sacré bleu!!!–Harlan dead, from what looks like a self-inflicted stab wound.
Or was it?? Dun DUN DUNNNN. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a wily private detective who immediately smells something wonky. Turns out, this onion has a few layers that are ripe for the peeling: Harlan was about to cut his sketchy son Walt (Michael Shannon) out of the family publishing business. He also found out that his son-in-law (Don Johnson) was running around on his daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis). And his influencer daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) has been double-dipping the allowance checks. And his crass, arrogant grandson (Chris Evans) deduced the old man’s plan to disinherit this whole batch of dilettante descendants. Finally, there’s Harlan’s kindly nurse (Ana de Armas) who knows more than she lets on. Blanc, an eccentric built from equal parts Hercule Poirot and Matlock, resolves to sift though this haystack of weak motives and loose morals to find the real killer.
That’s a whole lotta plot, and I’m not even giving away spoilers. And that’s okay: Movie mysteries like this are 2000-piece puzzles: You know you’ll have to have patience and commitment before you even start the thing. Part of the fun of all this is allowing writer-director Rian Johnson to guide you along his twisting road. The ending may not shock you, but getting there is most of the fun.
This movie had to be a blast to make, a fact that gets reflected in all the performances. With his gentlemanly comportment and Boss Hogg accent, the only way Craig could take his Southern Sherlock bit more over-the-top is if he had a white suit and a handkerchief to dab at his forehead. Johnson and Curtis are spot-on as rotten yuppies who always find the tidy rationalization for their ugliness. Evans effectively plays against type as an All-American monster. Armas brings sweet vulnerability to the movie’s true moral compass, an angelic young woman who swims in a sea of sociopaths.
In a lot of ways, Knives Out is the perfect post-Thanksgiving entertainment. It’s irresistibly fun, consistently inconsequential, well-made, and never terribly ambitious. Like those weekend murder mysteries, you put in the time to solve the crime, but you don’t have to take anything emotionally heavy home with you. If you’re looking for solid, cinematic escapism, you could do a lot worse than this undemanding whodunit.
130 min. PG-13.