The moral burden of wealth weighs heavily on Knives Out, a dexterously cunning, immensely entertaining whodunit that has more than catching the killer on its mind. According to the movie’s understanding of 2019 America, there’s a larger culprit on the loose: privilege and greed.
But let’s start with the usual suspects. On the occasion of his 85th birthday, legendary mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has gathered his family at his country estate for some cake and an update on his, well, estate. The next morning, the housekeeper discovers that Harlan has committed suicide by taking a knife to his throat. Or did he?
We begin the investigation with two lawmen (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a famous private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired by an unidentified mystery client. These three have gathered the entire family—played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans—as well as Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the Latina nurse who had been providing in-home care for Harlan. Interrogations ensue beneath the watchful eyes of the mansion’s many portraits, statues, wood carvings, and figurines.
And so begins writer-director Rian Johnson’s knotty, deliriously deceptive screenplay, which plays like an unreliable narrator’s recollection of a drunken friend’s story that they heard secondhand. And I mean that as a compliment. Johnson is in such control that we always know who is selling us what, even if we’re not quite sure whether or not we should believe them. As various parties recall the events of the night before, Johnson cuts to a repeated shot of a candlelit birthday cake being set down before Harlan—and the person we see holding the cake changes depending on who happens to be talking. Deception—or, rather, misperception—is built into the film’s very form.
Yet this isn’t just a case of having a handful of suspects from which to choose. After we think we have the lay of the land, Knives Out delivers a flashback sequence—squeezed in the midst of a coin flip—that adds another wrinkle, both logistically and morally. What if the offender is guilty in one way but innocent in another? What if the victim knew something the killer didn’t? What if someone else—a third party—knew even more?
I’ll shift to the performances for fear of giving anything away. If you have half as much fun watching Knives Out as the cast does performing in it, you’ll be guaranteed a good time. Craig brings a twinkle in his eye and a twang in his throat as the ridiculously southern Benoit Blanc (presumably a nod to Agatha Christie’s heavily accented Hercule Poirot), while Chris Evans indulges in his Hydra side by smarming it up as the rude, spoiled grandson, who’s as proud of his trust fund as he is the BMW he bought with it. Shannon, Curtis, and Collette squeeze shades of malice, malevolence, and disingenuousness into each full-frame close-up they get.
This isn’t just a case of having a handful of suspects from which to choose.
Eventually the film shifts its attention to Marta, the nurse, and de Armas responds with the film’s most layered performance. As the Thrombeys grow more hysterical the longer the investigation goes on, de Armas has to project more intelligence than everyone else, while also convincing us that Marta—who they all insist is “like a member of the family”—is at a loss in this elite world.
It’s that world of wealth that is the movie’s real concern. “This goddamn fortune,” Harlan grumbles in an early flashback, commiserating over the way it seems to have cursed, rather than blessed, his kids. And that’s before his death reveals what the Thrombeys will do—who and what they’ll sacrifice—to keep a grasp on something they didn’t really earn. I wish Knives Out had let some of this bubble under the surface rather than make it text (there’s a political argument amongst the family members that makes the film’s theme too clear, too soon), but the movie’s point is still well taken. In 2019, the American dream is no longer to improve your situation, but to hoard what you have.