Both old-fashioned and tongue-in-cheek, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a spirited comic detective story that evokes Agatha Christie – not her novels but their all-star, movie-glam adaptations, from the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express to the recent Kenneth Branagh version of that same book. Daniel Craig plays the Hercule Poirot stand in, a bumbling – or is he? – private detective with a plummy Southern-American accent and the cartoonish name Benoit Blanc, who investigates the possible murder of a bestselling crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey. The victim is played by Christopher Plummer, first as a bloody corpse on a couch – on his 85th birthday, which also becomes his death day – and then in flashbacks as a patriarch who has decided to cut off the flow of money to his family.
Everyone gathered in the Thrombeys’ big neo-Gothic house had a motive for murder. More important for the film, almost every one is sharply played by a familiar actor. Jamie Lee Curtis is Harlan’s businesslike daughter Linda, married to a cheating lout played by Don Johnson. Chris Evans is their son, deliciously named Ransom. A smarmy trust-fund boy, Ransom may be more interesting than Evans’s famous role as The Avengers’ bland Captain America. Michael Shannon is Harlan’s son Walt, who runs his father’s publishing empire, and Toni Collette is a daughter-in-law, the widow of Harlan’s other son, never quite accepted by the family.
One lesser-known actor has a major role, which she carries off with the confidence of a star. Ana de Armas plays Marta, Harlan’s sincere young nurse, whose friendship is a relief from his family’s money-grubbing greed. In one of the funniest satiric threads, the Thrombeys frequently claim that Marta is part of the family, even though one of them says she is from Uruguay, the other thinks she’s from Paraguay and another from Brazil.
Johnson’s screenplay constructs twists and turns that keep it ahead of the audience
The director, best known for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, started out making much smaller films that inventively toy with genre. Brick is a noir set in high school, and Looper a time-bending sci-fi about identity. Knives Out combines the big-name profile of Star Wars with that playfulness, involving the audience in the mystery while tossing in grace notes that undercut the genre elements.
As we see each character’s memories, we grasp the distance between what happened and what little they are sharing with the detectives. We can try to piece things together, but Johnson’s screenplay constructs twists and turns that keep it ahead of the audience. Hints and red herrings are everywhere in the house, though, which is cluttered with old-timey touches like antique vases and posters of Harlan’s book jackets alongside droll pop details. A chair made of knives resembles the Iron Throne, an homage to Game of Thrones, which shares with Knives Out the idea of siblings in a deadly power grab.
Daniel Craig gleefully breaks free of James Bond; his over-the-top comic turn dominates the film
“The guy practically lives in a Clue board,” LaKeith Stanfield says as the police detective assigned to the case. Like much of Knives Out, that line is mildly clever, self-conscious, and a bit too on-the-nose. As Johnson ticks off conventional murder-mystery elements while making fun of them, he has the family gather for the reading of the will, which starts with the lawyer acknowledging that it’s really not necessary for everyone to be there. When Linda grandiosely refers to the Gothic pile as their ancestral home, Blanc points out that Harlan bought it in the 1980s. Very witty. But details like a creaky floorboard and characters who sneak out in the night, while knowing, are sometimes flat.
Craig brings a touch of absurdity to the film, which could have used more of that goofy outrageousness. How did the Southern detective end up in a town near Boston? Who knows, but it’s a good thing he did. As in Steven Soderbergh’s 2017 caper Lucky Logan, Craig gleefully breaks free of James Bond. His over-the-top comic turn dominates the film and is often better than the rest of it. There are a few terrifically funny scenes, including a wildly confusing monologue by Blanc about the hole inside a donut hole. But much of Knives Out settles for being savvy and just fun enough. Best to remember that those old movies Johnson embraces were really not that great, and to bring lowered expectations to his entertaining but scattershot update.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.