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Dead Wringer

Sharp scripting and a stellar cast reinvigorate a murder mystery



Knives Out

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Rian Johnson, with the movie, at the multiplex.

That who/what/where solves the case of one of the smartest, most satisfying entertainments of the year. Knives Out isn’t just a clever homage to Agatha Christie whodunits; it replicates her formula and then goes beyond, not only in depth of intrigue but also emotional resonance and moral weight. Anchored by a breakthrough performance from up-and-coming actress Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), Knives Out is a riveting crowd pleaser that registers on a much richer level than most plot-driven genre movies.

Returning to Earth from a galaxy far, far away, the writer/director of The Last Jedi returns to crafting original material by tackling a conventional formula which has for most people become tired, passé and (ironically) predictable—a literary niche for the PBS boomer demo and kitschy dinner theaters.

Knives Out is the opposite of all those things, even as it gleefully embraces every single tenet Agatha Christie defined. Johnson isn’t out to subvert or deconstruct the genre. On the contrary, he masters every single trope in such vigorous, inventive ways that he infuses the murder mystery with mischievous command and newfound life.

The setup is familiar: a gathering at the mansion of a family estate ends in murder. The elder patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead and everyone’s a suspect. An all-star cast sinks their teeth into the ensemble of archetypes (Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette among them) as Rian Johnson throws suspicion and motive onto each one.

Enter Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a southern fried Poirot with a gentleman’s drawl. Having been hired by a secret client, Blanc tags along for the police interviews before taking over the entire investigation.

Just when it seems safe for us to settle in for two hours of requisite misdirects and obligatory subterfuge until the killer is exposed, Knives Out goes further than we bargained for. The whodunit construct is turned on its head, rooting interests become unexpectedly conflicted, and having the truth revealed could end up being more tragic than just.

At the heart of it all is Marta, the young Hispanic maid and Harlan’s hired caregiver who has become his only trusted confidant. As the fallout unravels and the leeching family jockeys for Harlan’s riches and assets, Marta gets caught up in their tangled web and it could threaten the cover of her undocumented mother. 

Played by Ana de Armas with endearing raw emotion, Marta’s tenous plight becomes the film’s heart and her moral quandary its soul. Through Marta, Knives Out is more than an intellectual exercise; it’s an ethical one with potentially devastating personal stakes.

Laughs and gasps escalate as the plot crescendos, weaving through the immaculately designed manor with Johnson’s cinematic precision, making for a classic movie with broad appeal that’s best experienced in a rapt audience. For a genre that is so often routine, the twists and turns of Knives Out create a true sense of surprise and discovery, perhaps the biggest of all being just how much you genuinely care. 

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