Towards the beginning of Knives Out, a detective (Lakeith Stanfield) remarks that Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful crime novelist and the patriarch of the Thrombey family, “practically lived inside a Clue Board.” The detective is referring to Harlan’s sprawling, mahogany–filled mansion that serves as the film’s primary setting. In some ways, though, the whole movie feels like Clue.
The Miss Scarlets and Professor Plums of the board game are here replaced with equally colorful, one–dimensional characters.
Toni Collette is a wellness guru, bursting at the seams with new–age cliché and vocal fry. Jamie Lee Curtis is a career woman, espousing a canned, corporate “#girlboss” mentality while stomping around in colored pantsuits. Chris Evans is a well–dressed, smug, trust fund baby. Don Johnson is that uncle who can’t help but start a debate about immigration at the dinner table. Nuance isn’t the goal here—writer and director Rian Johnson is using these caricatures to make a point about America today.
The Thrombeys are a wealthy, sprawling family, all living off of the money from Harlan’s publishing empire. They gather together for his 85th birthday, and the morning after, he’s found in his study with his throat slit. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, with a Southern accent so exaggerated that it teeters into SNL sketch territory) is brought to the scene to determine the culprit. And of course, as with every good murder mystery that takes place at a gothic New England mansion, the victim’s fortune hangs in the balance.
When speaking to Johnson, it’s clear that he just wants this passion project to be enjoyed by the masses. “It’s fun seeing it with audiences,” he says; these are characters he conceived himself, and watching crowds so invested in the movie is a direct testament to his success. He wanted this movie to have “the engine of a Hitchcock thriller,” while still playing with the age–old tropes of a whodunit.
And he did a good job—the movie knows its references, and feels right at home in the slick, satirical genre inhabited by the the cult–classic Clue. Craig and Evans both excel at a certain populist humor that had the crowd at my screening in fits of laughter in just about every scene.
The plot seems straightforward enough: a closed–room murder case with a bunch of oddball suspects, all with different motivations and alibis. But the most ambitious bait–and–switch that Knives Out pulls off is that it isn’t really a whodunit at all—we know the identity of the murderer by the end of act one.
Knives Out instead spends its time making a political statement, which shouldn’t be surprising, especially for those who saw Johnson’s iteration of Star Wars. But as an unfortunate consequence of that, we spend most of the movie’s runtime with the least interesting member of the cast.
Marta (Ana de Armas) is Harlan’s nurse. She is kind and sympathetic, with little complexity beyond that (except for the fact that she’s physically unable to tell a lie without vomiting seconds later—a bizarre quirk that feels out of place and serves as a plot device on multiple occasions).
She becomes our conduit into the Thrombeys’ world, and she eventually consumes the whole story. De Armas does a fine job in the role, but there’s nothing to her character beyond what the plot dictates. She’s a background character, until the movie demands that she step forward as the lead. She’s entirely guileless, until the movie demands that she be cunning.
Johnson’s script is tightly wound, but the greatest challenge of writing a mystery is to keep a certain pace to ensure that—by the end—the audience is still clamoring for the big reveal. Instead of keeping that rhythm, Knives Out falters in the third act, devolving into a series of clichés and red herrings, as we wait for Craig’s character to show up and explain everything. There are car chases, arson, anonymous blackmail, and at times it feels more like a middling crime TV show than a star–studded whodunit.
Johnson, who found great inspiration in the Agatha Christie novels he read as a kid, wanted to follow in her footsteps. “She was writing characters who were very present types in British society at the time. She wasn’t being timeless, she was writing to her time,” he says.
And Knives Out is a movie that could only exist in post–Trump America. In building his cast of characters, Johnson says that it was important that he “not let anyone off the hook.” Meg (Katherine Langford) leaves Harlan’s birthday party to hang out with her liberal–arts–major friends at Smith College and gets called an “SJW.” Then there’s a kid on the other side of the family who’s been radicalized by the alt–right after spending too much time on Reddit.
The Thrombey’s are wealthy, privileged, unaware, and conniving, at a time when most Americans have little patience for that. Marta is the 99 percent, the girl just trying to do her job and make her way through an unfair world. The moral of the story writes itself and, by the movie’s halfway point, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out where it’s going.
Johnson deserves credit for building characters that are immediately compelling and jump off the screen. But the script sidelines them in favor of a message about American class relations that feels like half–baked wish fulfillment. As bizarre as this might sound, Knives Out feels like a companion piece to one of the most talked–about movies of the year, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. But where Parasite offers nuance, Knives Out leans into razzle–dazzle.
The movie suffers from an embarrassment of riches. It’s hard to root for Marta—to even care about her at all—when Collette is wandering in and out of frame in Gwyneth Paltrow–drag and stealing every scene she’s in. Every time she talked more about her Goop–adjacent lifestyle brand, or was ready to relish in a screaming match between any of the clashing relatives, it felt like the movie was tugging at my wrist and forcing me back onto a main plotline that just wasn’t as fun. Johnson keeps a firm hold on the steering wheel to propel the plot forward when these characters so desperately want to careen off into absurdity.
None of this is intended to take away from what Johnson has achieved with Knives Out. It feels plucked from a genre of film that’s being lost today. It’s the type of movie that allows you to get caught up in the Hollywood of it all—the stars, the setting, the costumes, the tightly wound script, and the experience of laughing along with a bunch of strangers in a dark theater.
In short: the movie is fun, especially when its ensemble cast is allowed to fully let loose. But when we get to the end, and to the predictable, utopian final shot—I couldn’t help but wish that Knives Out were a bit sharper.