Movie review: ‘Knives Out’ a sharply witty whodunnit

World-famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is celebrating his 85th birthday with his family at his estate. It appears to be a joyous occasion, but there’s something sinister lurking beneath the surface.

The next morning, Harlan is found dead of a suspected suicide. However, renowned detective Benoit Blanc believes there may be foul play involved. He slowly starts to untangle a complicated web of secrets, lies, and family rivalries, at the heart of which is Harlan’s kind-hearted former nurse and caretaker, Marta Cabrera. Will the players in “Knives Out” be able to uncover the identity of the killer before he or she strikes again?

There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned whodunnit with a stellar ensemble cast, and with the success of 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and now “Knives Out,” I hope this sparks a resurgence in the genre.

“Knives Out” writer/director Rian Johnson also wrote and directed my personal favorite Star Wars film, “The Last Jedi,” and I also loved his sci-fi thriller “Looper.” Johnson isn’t afraid to take chances with his narratives or to twist our expectations. “Knives Out” is sharply written — the story is both funny and clever — and is a refreshing update on the classic murder mystery format.

If you’ve ever been to a dysfunctional family gathering (complete with loud shouting and accusations), you’ll know what to expect in the Thrombey household. They try to convince Detective Blanc that they’re an upstanding American family, but it doesn’t take much to unravel that perception. It’s not really a spoiler to say that pretty much every member of the Thrombey clan is in this for themselves.

I feel like we don’t see star-studded ensemble casts in Hollywood as often these days, so it’s particularly delightful when one like “Knives Out” works so well. It would take too long to praise everyone in the cast, but each of the actors brings their A-game, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer, among others.

Chris Evans also is having a great time playing against type, as the very un-Captain America character Hugh Ransom Drysdale, Harlan’s grandson. As much as I love Evans as Captain America, I’m looking forward to seeing him play some different roles. He seems right at home in this film as a snarky playboy.

And speaking of playing against type… Daniel Craig was simply fantastic as detective Benoit Blanc, a character who’s about as far removed from the suave and serious James Bond as you can get. I’d never have guessed that Craig had such good comic timing, but like Evans, he appears to be having an absolute blast in “Knives Out.” I’d love to see Craig and Johnson keep making more of these movies, with a different case to solve every time.

As Marta Cabrera, Ana de Armas provides the moral compass of this film, in a spoiler-filled role that elevates this movie from “entertaining” to “thought-provoking.” The Thrombeys pretend that Marta is just like a member of their family, but their interactions with her reveal their prejudices and their abuse of their privilege. Only Harlan is a true friend to Marta, and she later becomes the only person Blanc can trust.

The less you know about “Knives Out” going in, the more fun the surprises will be. Even though I now know how this mystery ends, I can’t wait to see it again and pick up on all the details I missed the first time. Be sure to keep an eye out for Johnson’s trademark foreshadowing; sometimes it’s subtle, but it provides important clues about how the story will wrap up. See if you can guess the ending!

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