KNIVES OUT. Classic mystery fans are an odd lot. We gleefully watch fancy people in drafty estates stab, shoot, garotte, bash, poison and shove one another down ornate staircases. It's a genre that rewards conformity and low stakes: the parsing of clues, red herrings and the big reveal. Do I even want to see a crime solved without every suspect seated in a circle of overstuffed furniture?
Writer and director Rian Johnson loves a mystery, too, as his darkly comic and engrossing 2005 teen noir Brick clearly shows. (It's on Netflix now. Enjoy.) And on a break from a galaxy far, far away, he revisits the genre, affectionately jabbing at its conventions, raising the stakes and, as Agatha Christie did, cutting at the hypocrisies of our time, all with style and a tremendous amount of fun.
A week after nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2045, 2017) finds her employer, internationally famous mystery author Harlan Thrombey (a stately Christopher Plummer), with his throat slit, investigating officer Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) gathers Thrombey's family and employees at his mansion — a claustrophobia-inducing maze of leather, brocades, secret passages and creepy figures that Elliott likens to a Clue board — to be questioned again about the events of the night of his death. This time, it is for the benefit of the cigar smoking, coin flipping Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, having a ball trading his Bond tux for tweed), profiled in the New Yorker as the "last gentlemen detective" and hired by a mysterious client to investigate the author's death. One by one, the Thrombeys take their turn before an ornamental sunburst of daggers, recounting their movements on the night of their patriarch's 85th birthday party and their conversations with the deceased. There is the formidable and formidably pants-suited daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul married to the smarmy Richard (Don Johnson), with whom she shares general disappointment over Ransom (a smugly spoiled Chris Evans), their son/black sheep of the family. There is son Walt (Michael Shannon), who handles Harlan's book publishing, Walt's glass shard of a wife (Riki Lindhome) and their right-wing troll son (Jaeden Martell doing a fine impression of a glass of skim milk in a prep school jacket). There's also daughter-in-law Judith (a hilarious Toni Colette), a Goop-spiritual cosmetics entrepreneur whose marriage to Harlan's late son Neil produced Meg (Katherine Langford), an idealistic undergrad. One by one, their flashbacks reveal to us what their sanitized descriptions hope to hide from the detectives: an affair, siphoning money off the old man, getting canned from Harlan's publishing company, getting cut from the will. Interviewing Marta proves an effective way to ferret out most of the deceptions as she has a physiological condition that makes her unable to lie without vomiting. Along with her visceral tell, Marta was also Harlan's confidante, privy to all his ruminations about his family and the disservice he felt he'd done them by paying their way.
When a flashback shows us Harlan's actual death, the movie takes a sharp turn from whodunnit to who'll-get-done-for-it and, to his credit, Johnson, with his sharp writing and inventive camera work, doesn't let the tension drop, even through "the dumbest car chase ever." With winking nods to Murder She Wrote and others, we get a mysterious blackmailer, secret entryways, footprints, the reading of a surprise will (by a refreshingly blunt Frank Oz) and a library encrusted with weapons. There's even a fumbling, though not a full drop, of a tray at the sight of a body. Against type, though, Harlan, whom Plummer plays with more warmth than usual, is not the stock monster of the manor, ripe for a letter opener to the back — he's kind and obstinate, humbled by his mistakes and grateful for Marta's companionship, despite her wiping the floor with him at Go.
And it's de Armas' understated performance as Marta — smart, resourceful and above all decent — that is the heart of the movie. She, too, has a secret in that her mother is undocumented — a precarious position requiring deception she can't pull off. What the Thrombeys experience as a living room debate about immigration is life or death for Marta and nearly throws her into panic attack. Not that the siblings notice, mired as they are in delusions of themselves as "self-made," preaching the gospel of hard work and sacrifice as they helm businesses financed by Harlan's books and breathlessly await their inheritances. And while they are quick to declare Marta "family," quote Hamilton and boast their liberal cred for embracing a woman from an immigrant family, none of them can agree on what country her people are from. Predictably, their good will and ideals dissolve when the lifestyle to which they are accustomed is threatened. Marta's welcome in the Thrombey home is as tenuous as her welcome in what they perceive as their country by birthright. They come, as Blanc puts it, "knives out, beaks bloody."
The tightly controlled suspense, the clues and the family sniping (especially among such a stellar cast) carry us swiftly along to a satisfying conclusion. But even as we chuckle, Marta's wet eyes and nervous, bouncing knee remind us that for some of us, it's life or death. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill