Placing its own slightly unorthodox twist on the Agatha Christie whodunit — complete with an all-star cast, seemingly having a grand time doing it — “Knives Out” is a whole lot of fun, intended to keep the audience off-balance right up until the finish. It’s a razor-sharp throwback from writer-director Rian Johnson, which almost feels like a palate cleanser after directing the last “Star Wars” movie.
The premise can be summed up neatly enough, with the apparent-suicide death of bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the 85-year-old patriarch of a highly dysfunctional family. The circumstances, however, leave everyone looking like a potential suspect — there’s the little matter of that estate, after all — and thrust Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) squarely into the midst of the craziness.
Tasked with unraveling it all, meanwhile, is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who speaks in a Foghorn Leghorn Southern drawl (a point overtly made) and is described as “the last of the gentleman sleuths.” Blanc spends a fair amount of time appraising the familial quirks, while saying Holmes-ian lines like “The game is afoot” and referring to a sidekick as “Watson.”
As for the family, everyone has a possible motive for wanting to do in ol’ Harlan, including his grown kids (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon), in-laws (Don Johnson, a scene-stealing Toni Collette) and grandchildren (Chris Evans, “13 Reasons Why’s” Katherine Langford, “It’s” Jaeden Martell), who each rely on papa bear’s wealth and anticipated inheritance in one way or another.
Christie’s mysteries have never really gone out of fashion, and indeed, have mounted a bit of a comeback with new versions of “Murder on the Orient Express” and the upcoming “Death on the Nile.”
Part of the charm involves seeing these stars get to flex some different muscles. Still, Johnson offers a somewhat unique point of entry, providing a great deal of information early on, peeling back layers — using frequent flashbacks — as the story unfolds primarily within the confines of the Thrombeys’ sprawling estate.
“Knives Out” does include some current political references, but otherwise it’s the kind of playful, cleverly constructed lark designed to be nothing more than fun, exhibiting a genuine fondness for both the books and movies that inspired it.
That might not add up to a blockbuster, but like one of Harlan’s mysteries, it’s a movie that in its amusing simplicity could enjoy a long shelf-life.
“Knives Out” premieres Nov. 27 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.