[The following review contains minor SPOILERS; you have been warned!]
Knives Out is about as far from a conventional murder mystery as you can get. Of course, that’s hardly surprising, considering its director; Rian Johnson has never encountered a genre that he couldn’t twist into a unique shape (indeed, his decision to bring his subversive voice to The Last Jedi ended up alienating a lot of Star Wars fans), and his latest effort is no exception. Like the majority of his work, however, this isn’t some malicious parody, but rather a sincere and heartfelt celebration of beloved storytelling traditions; he only deconstructs the familiar tropes and clichés so that he might better reassemble them, thus illuminating exactly why they continue to endure.
Initially, at least, the narrative faithfully adheres to the standard formula established by such literary classics as Murder on the Orient Express. It begins, as it must, with a corpse: an eccentric and affluent octogenarian is found dead in the master bedroom of his remote estate—with the blade that inflicted the fatal wound clutched in his own hand. Although the coroner quickly rules it a suicide, it gradually becomes obvious that the circumstances surrounding our victim’s demise are anything but simple; a veritable rogues’ gallery of suspicious characters (played, naturally, by such immediately recognizable celebrities as Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and Chris Evans) soon emerges, each with a compelling motive to commit murder… as well as an airtight alibi that seemingly absolves them of the crime.
Into this volatile situation swaggers Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, delivering a performance that redefines “pitch perfect”), a flamboyant private detective hired by an anonymous benefactor. Constantly puffing away at a comically long cigar and swift to dispense impenetrable nuggets of deep-fried Southern “wisdom,” Blanc closely resembles the sort of quirky protagonist you’d find in an Agatha Christie novel… at first glance, anyway; he adamantly disputes such shallow comparisons, arguing that whereas fictional sleuths tirelessly dig for the truth like hogs rooting for truffles, he merely follows the path set forth by the evidence to its predetermined, inevitable conclusion. These bizarre philosophical musings straddle the line between brilliance and buffoonery, making it difficult to discern whether our intrepid “hero” is just obfuscating ignorance in order to lull his prey into a false sense of security… or genuinely is as utterly clueless as he acts. The fact that the viewer is always privy to more information than he is (including the solution to the “locked room” puzzle at the center of the plot) complicates matters; we watch him stumble through the dark, struggling to untangle a complex web of lies and deceit that has, for the most part, already been unraveled for us.
While revealing the perpetrator’s identity less than a third of the way through the running time of a whodunit would normally be anticlimactic, in this case, such transparency actually works to the movie’s advantage, altering the expected course of the conflict and tugging the audience’s sympathies in multiple different directions. I could spend hours dissecting the film’s structural and stylistic subtleties… but for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll refrain from delving into further details. Knives Out is a bonafide original, and its myriad pleasures are best experienced firsthand.