Agatha Christie often used one of my favorite plot setups — people called together under mysterious circumstances, only to be faced with a murder mystery.
A new film — a star-studded, old-style murder mystery called “Knives Out” — falls into that category.
Director Rian Johnson wanted to make a mystery following his both-loved-and-hated “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” outing. So, he wrote “Knives Out.” He describes it as being like “an Agatha Christie novel set in modern-day America and with American characters.”
Rather than being an homage to Christie-style films, he wanted it to be unique in its own right. But adding something new is quite a challenge with a genre that has been done a million times over.
“Johnson knows that we know this all too well and knows we know he knows this too, so he knows he has to work that much harder to outfox us by knowing more than we think we might know,” surmises The Guardian.
Johnson cited several classic mystery thrillers and comedies as influences, among them “Death on the Nile,” “Evil Under the Sun,” “Murder by Death,” “The Last of Sheila,” “The Mirror Crack’d” and “Something’s Afoot.”
Johnson’s own original script manages to display his affection for the genre without slipping into Quentin Tarantino fanboy indulgence.
The synopsis: “Wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey invites his extended dysfunctional family to his remote mansion on his 85th birthday in hopes of reuniting them all. However, the day after the birthday party, Harlan is found dead by members of the family. The police, along with experienced Detective Benoit Blanc, are called in to investigate.”
The old man’s throat was slit, the knife still in his hand. The local police rule it a suicide, but Detective Blanc remains skeptical. After all, who cuts his own throat?
There are plenty of suspects among the family members. Flashbacks reveal that they all leeched off of Thrombey’s wealth and celebrity status.
As is standard with Agatha Christie movies, this too offers up a galaxy of stars. Think: “Murder on the Orient Express,” but with less flashy celebs.
The name of Christopher Plummer’s character, Harlan Thrombey, is undoubtedly an homage to the title of a popular 1980s Choose Your Own Adventure book by Edward Packer entitled, “Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?”
In “Knives Out” Thrombey is a wealthy writer with three children — Linda, Walt and an unnamed deceased son.
Jamie Lee Curtis (“Halloween”) plays the eldest daughter, Linda, a real estate mogul who runs her own company. Don Johnson (TV’s “Miami Vice”) is cast as Lynda’s doltish husband, Richard. And Chris Evans is perfect as their son Ransom, a spoiled playboy who insults everybody in sight.
Michael Shannon plays Walt, the youngest son, CEO of his dad’s publishing company. A pathetic loser, he gets no respect from his family. Riki Lindhome is Walt’s wife, Donna. And Jaeden Martell (“It”) is their Trump-supporting son, Jacob, an internet troll. Katherine Langford (“13 Reasons Why”) is his Trump-loathing sister, Meg.
Toni Collette plays Joni, Harlan’s deceased son’s wife, a lifestyle guru who has been stealing from the old man.
Daniel Craig (“Spectre,” the upcoming “No Time to Die”) throws off his 007 guise to play the esteemed Southern detective Benoit Blanc. Craig says he based Blanc’s mouth-full-of-grits accent on Mississippi-born Civil War historian Shelby Foote.
Writer-director Johnson describes the character as “an American Poirot.”
Benoit Blanc takes charge of the puzzling case, but the question is: Who hired him?
However, the true hero of “Knives Out” is Harlan’s most trusted confidante, his nurse Marta. As portrayed by Ana De Armas (“Blade Runner 2049”), she provides the audience’s perspective into this duplicitous world. Isolated and alone, she is the lynchpin. The family claims to love Marta, even if they can’t remember which South American country she comes from.
Can she help solve the case?
Toss in cameos by such odd fellows as Frank Oz and M. Emmet Walsh, you have a list of suspects to keep you guessing in this whodunit.
“Knives Out” is as much a comedy as a puzzler. You can enjoy this cinematic game of Clue at AMC Classic Towne Crossing 8, 925 W. Andrew Johnson Highway.
This is Johnson’s first murder mystery since “Brick” (2005). Here he puts a twist on the genre. Once the characters are established, they take over. Just when you think you have the plot figured out, it adds twists upon twists
“Knives Out” is a delicious entertainment for armchair detectives.