‘Knives Out’

Directed by: Rian Johnson

Written by: Rian Johnson

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer

Trailer courtesy of Lionsgate.

“Knives Out” is a rare breed of film to come out of Hollywood in a good, long while. It boasts a cast of many luminaries and gives them just enough to do without trampling over one another; it honors two timeless styles of film, one with which we’ve distanced ourselves from until recently, it uses humor to cut into the drama turning out such a strong story and even stronger characters, and it’s fun!

At the center of it all is Rian Johnson, the man who’s given us “Brick,” “Looper” and more recently and divisively, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” If I’ve learned anything from watching Johnson’s films, is to never underestimate his path.

To that end, “Knives Out” is a murder-mystery in the grand tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Set in an isolated mansion, a birthday celebration for wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) brings together his dysfunctional family. The next morning, they find him. Dead.

While the police begin an investigation, private detective Benoit Blanc sits on the periphery, observing. Daniel Craig, who plays Blanc uses his charm and swagger when the mood fits the character. When he is observing though, his eyes never betray what he’s thinking and he always just lurks with hilarious result.

As Blanc lurks during Linda’s interview, she becomes unraveled. Jamie Lee Curtis plays the unraveled bit with great humor when she asks who Blanc is. This is just one of the great character moments that define Johnson’s style of filmmaking. Linda, the eldest of the three kids is a success in her own right. She’s got a successful company and a husband, Richard (Don Johnson) by her side. What more could life ask for?

Well, she’s got a bratty son in Hugh (Chris Evans.)  Evans uses his roguish good looks and charm to play the beguiling son, known as Ransom. He is the perfect compliment to Curtis’s Linda and Don Johnson’s Richard: carefree and rich with very little responsibility.

Blanc’s investigation unravels secrets to which Harlan was privy, bringing other members of the family into the picture, notably, Walter (Michael Shannon) as the youngest son. Shannon’s range comes into clearer focus with this film as he moves from humility to incredulity to threatening, but underneath it all is just a scared kid. He really pours his energy into the performance and we see it very clearly.

Toni Collette plays Joni, the widow to Harlan’s middle son Neil. Joni sneers at the rest of the family as an outsider, but plays the dysfunction for what it’s worth. Collette’s sneering dominates her performance; she relishes in it because it’s so disdainful that it becomes comedic.

While Craig toils away at the imaginary mustache, pontificating on why he was even called into this case, Ana de Arma, who plays Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse and caretaker mouses around, following the breadcrumbs. Eventually, Blanc picks up on her trail as the family tries to come after her, believing that she did the crime.

In inimitable fashion, Rian Johnson leaves visual cues for us to follow, culling us into his murder-mystery, especially in the second half. When Marta is overrun by the family, Hugh steps into the picture, picking up the pacing of the film. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography captures each of the characters at odd angles, adding a context to the humor. He carries the drama and the theatricality of the entire ensemble beautifully.

Yedlin’s exterior shots of the lakeside mansion, shrouded in fog or cloud-covered is never ambivalent, but is menacing, reminding us that we are watching a murder mystery. The editing by Bob Ducsay is on point, keeping Johnson’s tempo while making sure that we have all the information we need to identify who the murderer is.

Just when we think we have it figured out, Rian Johnson pulls another twist out of his bag. Each of the characters is in on the shenanigans, which recalls “Clue” or Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death.” Yet, there’s an element of Hitchockian suspense that underpins the drama and that elevates the characters.

“Knives Out” is a gem of a film, recalling murder-mysteries of the past with a cast who plays nicely with each other, using the elements of the murder to carry each twist and turn. The comedy and the drama blend well together, anchored by stellar turns from Ana de Arma and Daniel Craig. Chris Evans is still easy on the eyes too.

Whodunit? You’re going to have to visit the theater to see “Knives Out.”

PG-13, Run Time: 130 minutes, A Lionsgate Release