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Murder on the Affluent Express

‘Knives Out,’ Rian Johnson’s return to genre flicks after helming ‘The Last Jedi,’ bites off more than it can chew—but watching the movie try is worth the price of admission

Lionsgate/Ringer illustration

The casting of Daniel Craig as a Southern-accented detective in Rian Johnson’s tricky new thriller Knives Out is sublimely funny, but it isn’t unprecedented; two summers ago, Steven Soderbergh got equally good comic mileage out of turning James Bond into a hillbilly, letting Craig’s eccentric munitions expert Joe Bang steal the ensemble heist comedy Logan Lucky out from under his costars. In that film, Soderbergh was playing his usual game of using genre to comment on contemporary politics, and the integration of entertainment and subtext was effortless. Johnson, whose earlier films marked him as a clever genre specialist before his gig helming The Last Jedi, is trying something similar with Knives Out, his first foray back out of billion-dollar franchise territory. But the elements don’t fuse quite so easily: In trying to make his old-fashioned murder mystery topical around the edges, Johnson’s showmanship betrays signs of strain.

The reason that Craig’s Benoit Blanc is at the murder scene of billionaire crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is that some unknown member of the dearly departed’s family has hired him independent of the local police investigation; the question of who is the first of many expertly delayed revelations in Johnson’s screenplay, which draws deeply from any number of literary and screen whodunnits without explicitly copying any single inspiration. Of the many familiar tropes in play here, the old standby of fabulously wealthy assholes playing cutthroat games with their potential inheritance money is given pride of place, swiftly inventorying the various vices of Harlan’s adult children—all repulsive caricatures of inherited privilege played by Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Toni Collette—and placing them in counterpoint to the sturdy virtue of Harlan’s young immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who, after a wonderfully nasty prologue set on the night of her employer’s death, comes into focus as the story’s sweetly discombobulated protagonist.

What Johnson is going for is a parable of sorts, showcasing Marta’s decency and loyalty even in the face of her employers’ low-key racism. (“Immigrants: they get the job done,” smiles Harlan’s repugnant son-in-law Richard [Don Johnson], helpfully annotating the Hamilton reference by crowing about seeing the show at the Public Theater in New York.) If it’s a bit facile to graft the emotionally dysfunctional, ethically disfigured Thromleys directly onto a certain prominent American family, it’s also very much on the movie’s mind: The son of Shannon’s character (Jaeden Martell) is explicitly packaged as an alt-right edgelord who posts to white supremacist websites and clashes with Collette’s woke daughter (Katherine Langford).

The laughs in Knives Out are real, but easy, and Johnson’s critique of the 1 percent is also selectively sympathetic. Plummer’s patriarch is depicted less as the rotted root of a bad-apple tree than a genuine gentleman embarrassed by his successors—a bit of narrative calculus that ultimately doesn’t add up. We’re supposed to respect Harlan for being a great artist in an old-school discipline, a storyteller who built his empire from the ground up. Yet for the movie to work, Harlan has to have presided over a viper’s nest of mercenary relatives for decades without being responsible for their behavior or complicit in their awfulness. Johnson doesn’t quite suspend our disbelief on this point. Similarly, it’s Harlan’s affection for Marta—his respect and admiration for her self-effacing service—that’s supposed to cue us to feel the same way, especially once the the big mid-story twist hits and the surviving Thrombeys find some good reasons to be (even more) suspicious of the outsider in their midst.

It’s that sense of not belonging—a mix of alienation and gratitude—that connects Marta and Benoit, and the interplay between Craig and de Armas is genuinely charming, oscillating between solidarity and skepticism. They are each, in their way, audience surrogates, and it’s possible that Knives Out would have a little more actual tension (as opposed to expertly engineered suspense) if we were allowed to believe for even a moment that either of them was flawed. Johnson has given Marta a wonderful character tic wherein she’s incapable of telling a lie without vomiting, as if anything less than full transparency would eat away at her insides—it’s a detail that, within the script’s revelation-filled structure, doubles as a gimmick. Marta’s inability to fib is balanced against Benoit’s tendency toward wild, grandiloquent speculation, which Craig plays with just the right level of hearty, self-satisfied cheerfulness—he’s a better Hercule Poirot than Kenneth Branagh was in Murder on the Orient Express. There’s also a third outsider, Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), whose outcast status may or may not be a form of deception; either way, seeing Evans ditch the stolid Captain America act to play somebody more malevolently multileveled has a little bit of a kick.

Visually, Johnson goes all out to give Knives Out the kind of tactile splendor absent in CGI spectacles; the Thrombey mansion is a marvel of macabre production design, and in its way, as symbolically and socioeconomically suggestive as the mansion in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, another mystery-thriller with a sociological undertow. Johnson and his cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, delight in moving the camera around the cramped yet cavernous space of the old house, and while the film’s style isn’t as wildly baroque as it could be, there’s genuine control in the way the scenes have been shot, staged, and assembled—a feeling of velocity that doesn’t sacrifice the sort of telling details that need to be included to give the audience any chance of unraveling the mystery in real time.

In a movie like this, the only thing more important than trying to fool the viewer is making sure to play fair at the same time, or else the solution, however intricate, ends up being unsatisfying. On a single viewing, Knives Out seems to hold together; what sticks out at odd angles is the insistence on pop-culture in jokes (like an aside mentioning Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) and the aforementioned, obvious observations about haves and have-nots. As a smartly crafted and shaped piece of entertainment, Johnson’s movie comes off especially good in a moment when such mid-budget, story-driven movies have all but disappeared; it’s a throwback that’s also an outlier. But in desiring to be simultaneously out of time and of the moment, Knives Out is perhaps trying to do a little bit too much.