Knives Out review: Daniel Craig has a blast in a murderously fun whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie

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Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield, and Noah Segan in Knives Out
Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield, and Noah Segan in Knives Out

Dir: Rian Johnson. Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell. 12A cert, 130 mins

Keeping a film’s secrets, when they’re as cunningly guarded as they are in the star-spangled whodunit Knives Out, isn’t just a pressing responsibility for a critic – it’s a cinch. Beyond its waspish wit, a dastardly roll-call of suspects and Daniel Craig’s dapper efforts as our presiding sleuth, the film gives nothing away until the bitter end, thanks to a head-spinning tricksiness of plotting that even Agatha Christie might have conceded was rather ingenious.

Writer-director Rian Johnson is previously best known for entering a world of pain as director-for-hire on the most divisive Star Wars film to date, 2017’s still furiously loved-and-loathed The Last Jedi. He has followed it up with a delectably entertaining confection that almost anyone can get behind. That it comes with a trenchant side order of social commentary about America’s haves and have-nots proves the very opposite of a fly in the ointment.

No time’s wasted: on the occasion of his 85th birthday, with grasping family members gathered all around, world-famous crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in his mansion’s attic snug with his throat slit.

It’s the kind of locked-room mystery beloved of one of Christie’s contemporaries, the American author John Dickson Carr, to whom Plummer, who gives a peach of a performance in flashbacks, even bears a faint resemblance. But while the circumstances of Harlan’s grisly death are baffling, and suicide seems the only logical conclusion, every one of the surviving Thrombeys has a juicy motive for speeding him to the grave.

There’s his daughter Linda, played by a spikily imperious Jamie Lee Curtis, and her smoothie rake of a husband Richard (Don Johnson), who expect to get the house at the very least: it’s a tottering puzzle-box of a red-brick Massachusetts manse, all hefty fireplaces fending off the autumn chill.

Linda’s siblings are Walter (Michael Shannon), a bone-dry intellectual who runs the publishing house in posh knitwear, and Joni (Toni Collette), a cash-strapped single mom who despises Richard’s crass Republicanism, but isn’t exactly a model of liberal conscience when you get to know her.

Late to the party is Harlan’s oldest grandchild Ransom (Chris Evans), a scarf-flinging ne’er-do-well who doesn’t even bother to attend the funeral. And then there’s Marta (Ana de Armas), the dead man’s full-time nurse and confidante, who has a family to feed and frets about her mother’s illegal-immigrant status.

Rian Johnson's Knives Out

Depending on which Thrombey you ask, she hails from Ecuador, or Paraguay, or Brazil, or whatever – the clan treat her with a skin-deep solicitousness that peels off rapidly when she’s named, to their mass shock, as a major beneficiary in Harlan’s will.

As a stylist, is Rian Johnson much more than passable? Here it doesn’t matter. As in his somewhat precocious 2005 debut, Brick, he pokes elaborate fun at a genre while also putting its mechanisms into overdrive. This time, he’s come up with a far more satisfying take on the all-star murder mystery than anything Kenneth Branagh’s chintzy Murder on the Orient Express had to offer.

He’s abetted by Craig’s deliberately hammy performance as one Benoit Blanc, a Southern gentleman-detective privately hired – by whom, we don’t know – to oversee the police work of Lakeith Stanfield’s diligent, low-key cop.

Evans has a blast, whether he’s mocking Craig’s admittedly hoary accent or insulting every one of his relations lavishly from an armchair. De Armas, meanwhile, barely more than a pin-up fantasy as the holographic girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049, finally gets to show her mettle, anchoring the film sympathetically from its second act on.

Johnson’s plot, so devious but also accommodating, manages to trap Marta in its cogs as a prime suspect, and to make her battle the Thrombeys, not just for exoneration, but a better life. Every time you think you’ve guessed what’s up the writer-director’s sleeve, you both have and haven’t: the layering, feints, and decoys fox you exactly as he’s hoping. Had Harlan Thrombey, fêted doyen of detective fiction, sat down to screen-write his own murder, he could hardly have improved on this.

Knives Out is screening as part of the London Film Festival, and opens in the UK on November 29 

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