Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” turns class struggle and Trumpism into the cozy fare of a “Murder, She Wrote” or “Masterpiece Mystery!” episode. Acknowledging classism and the fact that the one percent are usually awful people, rather than honorable folks whose words are gems of inspirational wisdom, no longer seems taboo. Look at the success of the HBO series “Succession.” Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” which has turned into a pop culture phenomenon beyond the typical reach of foreign films in the US in recent years, sinks its knives far deeper into similar subject matter.
The hero of “Knives Out” is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), a nurse to wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Just after turning 85, Harlan is found dead at his estate. His middle-aged children — Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walt (Michael Shannon), and Joni (Toni Collette — had expected a celebration but are now faced both with their grief and their prospect of an inheritance. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segal) arrive to investigate the case. At first, it appears to be a suicide, with Harlan having stabbed himself in the torso and slit this throat. Since Marta had helping administer his medicine, she has to prove she had nothing to do with the death. Harlan’s children bicker among themselves, shouting talking points about immigration and racism.
Blanc is an American. Indeed, Daniel Craig speaks in a Southern accent that drawls every “I” into a flat “ah.” (The actor says he based his voice on Civil War historian Shelby Foote.) But his name is obviously a reference to Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. Most of “Knives Out” takes place within one setting, the large Thrombey mansion. The fact that Thrombey is a novelist adds a particularly meta layer to the film, with him commenting on how his experiences can benefit writing. Plummer is now 89, and he brings a full lifetime of experience to the part. He’s old enough to feel like a living link to the time when Christie’s work held sway in our culture. Given his casting as James Bond, Craig’s performance as Blanc can’t help resonating in the opposite direction: he’s a dandy, dressed in floral ties, with little machismo.
Johnson’s films have always been interested in playing around with the conventions of genre. His 2005 debut was “Brick,” a detective story whose gumshoe was a high school kid. His third film, “Looper,” took to sci-fi, weaving a complicated tale of time travel and identity exchange that required having Joseph Gordon-Levitt made up to resemble a young Bruce Willis. The clout he received from making “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” undoubtedly enabled him to get “Knives Out” financed in present-day Hollywood; by contemporary studio standards, it’s a fairly eccentric film, one more likely to get distributed by a company like Sony Pictures Classics than Lionsgate.
Thrombey is a very sympathetic character who is closer to Marta than his actual family. He complains that they’ve grown lazy on the money he earned. (He got rich by making art rather than inheriting wealth, which may be a sign that Johnson sees himself in the character.) In a running gag, none of his children can remember where Marta is from, throwing out different Latin American countries. But the way she gets roped into one argument because she’s seen as a “good,” legal immigrant comes back to haunt the Thrombeys. The film has one brilliant metaphor for what it’s trying to do, aesthetically and politically: a shot of Marta and her mother watching “Murder, She Wrote” dubbed into Spanish. This is the present and future of the US, it suggests, and Anglos had better get used to it. But even the rich white characters who claim to be liberals fear money slipping away from them to Marta — who, in fact — is so honest that she throws up if she tells a lie.
This is all well and good, but watching the film it sometimes feels like the topical references were thrown together at the last minute after reading arguments on social media. Still, its jokes about donuts and dialogue about how no one has actually read “Gravity’s Rainbow” are a delight. “Knives Out” is loaded with flashbacks, sudden revelations, and reversals. Its greatest pleasure lies in storytelling about storytelling, planting clues that pay off an hour later.
Johnson brings together a type of detective story and upper-class setting from 20th-century England informed by contemporary American politics. Instead of looking back toward the hard-boiled fiction that inspired “Brick,” “Knives Out” suggests that it’s necessary to turn to comedy to process our world’s unfairness. It’s light entertainment for #theresistance.
KNIVES OUT | Directed by Rian Johnson | Lionsgate | Opens Nov. 27 | citywide