The amusing new movie “Knives Out” manages to keep its two different parts together. That’s the triumph of writer and director Rian Johnson (who made “The Last Jedi”).
But much of the fun of the film is generated by his cast — Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette. And get this: as a bonus we get supporting bits by Frank Oz and the great M. Emmet Walsh. Seeing Walsh work again is by itself worth the price of admission.
Most of these actors play characters belonging to the Thrombey family. Their patriarch, Harlan (Plummer) is a very wealthy writer of mystery novels. He lives in a three-story house isolated on its own grounds and protected, at night, by guard dogs.
The family gathers for his birthday, and his housekeeper and his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and his ancient mother are also around. Harlan meets with several of his near and dear — ne’er-do-well grandson, Ransom (Evans), son and head of the family publishing house, Walt (Shannon), philandering son-in-law, Richard (Johnson, who is particularly likable here), and double-dipping daughter-in-law, Joni (Collette).
The old man threatened to expose or cut off each of them we learn as the investigation picks up a week after his death. You see, Harlan seems to have slit his own throat. Or was it murder?
Celebrity detective Benoit Blanc (Craig with a southern accent) receives, from some anonymous party, a large cash retainer to prompt his investigation. Then, the police go out to the house with Blanc and begin to question those interested in Harlan’s will.
The interested may include Marta. And after all the other characters have gotten in their colorful character building, we learn that she had a part in Harlan’s demise. She gave him the wrong dose of one of his medicines. This was going to kill him and cause her to be investigated.
To avoid this, Harlan has come up with a plan. It involves her leaving at a time that will be noted by witnesses, secretly returning to impersonate the dead man at a later time and then sneaking off again. The old man will kill himself, so that there will be no reason for an after-death lab report on drugs in his system.
But Benoit seems to suspect Marta. Then, Harlan’s will gives her a motive for murder. And then all our understanding of events is shaken by her confession to one of the family members and to his quickly-generated plan to salvage the situation.
Her confession marks the beginning of the story’s second section, one in which several of the other characters appear only in flashbacks.
The action here takes place mostly outside of the family home, too, and includes a blackmail attempt, a modest-speed car chase, a reporters’ riot, a fire-bombing of the local police laboratory, the arrest of Ransom, and the discovery of the housekeeper in a deserted dry-cleaner’s, dying and with a spider on her face.
There are some exotic and ominous details in the set, too. The sitting room at the house features a large assembly of knives, items Harlan may have described in his many novels. There is a secret window in the house, hidden on the inside by a second wall. A hidden drawer in a mantle clock contains joints and a conclusive lab report. We see almost all of this before, suddenly, Benoit is back at Marta’s side. And he seems to understand what it all means.
Not only that, but he explains it all in a way that makes it clear to the viewer. And there are still a couple of plot developments to play out, including an attempt on Marta’s life.
Sound like enough events to fill a movie — or two? Watching director Johnson juggle all those characters, all those colorful details, and all those mysterious incidents is part of the fun of seeing “Knives Out,” the first solid movie of the holiday season.