In his new movie, Rian Johnson dusts off Agatha Christie with help from Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson.
A sleek game of cat and mouse, “Knives Out” begins the hunt with a mysterious pool of blood and ends, well, telling wouldn’t be fair. The press screening that I attended was preceded by a brief video in which the writer and director Rian Johnson asked viewers not to spill the movie’s secrets. The entreaty suggests how seriously Johnson takes his own cleverly deployed twists and the challenges of keeping ostensible spoilers under wraps. The twists are kinked and amusing, although far less striking than the obvious pleasure he had making this exactingly machined puzzle box.
Stuffed with famous and blurrily familiar faces, the movie takes the shape of an old-fashioned whodunit — the kind with mystery, suspense, entertainment, a corpse on an heirloom settee and a half-dozen or so shifty suspects milling about.
As in many genre exemplars, the main setting is a stately manor with dark corners, creaking stairs and a warren of richly appointed rooms shrouded in secrets. Together, the rooms create a claustrophobic maze, though they more pointedly resemble cabinets of curiosities with jumbles of books, dead animals, laughing masks, acres of rugs and eccentric objets.
The house itself feels like a mousetrap, which works for a narrative puzzle in which the parts keep shifting as the wood-paneled walls close in. The overall sense of confinement is perfect for the aims of a private investigator, Benoit Blanc, a honey-baked ham played by Daniel Craig with grandiose self-regard and a Southern accent that seems borrowed from Kevin Spacey. There isn’t a butler in the parlor, but there is a rather too virtuous caretaker, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who worked for the manor’s imperious patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who suddenly and rather flamboyantly croaks.