Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Stars: Toni Collette, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon
Director: Rian Johnson
Did you like Murder on the Orient Express? You'll love Knives Out, a gust of fresh air in the dusty old “We're gathered at the Thrombey mansion after a murder — and one of you is a killer” genre. It also shares some DNA with the dynastic mooching-relatives TV hit Succession, because the entire Thrombey clan is not only wondering who slit the throat of their fabulously successful crime-novelist patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer, 89), they're also frantic to learn how his will divvies up his fortune. It's too absorbingly suspenseful to be just a comedy, but it's witty — there's even a good joke based on the entirely sound idea that AARP is a good place to report elder abuse.
Plummer looks like he's having the time of his life, but not as much fun as Daniel Craig, 51, as Louisiana's Benoît Blanc — somebody tells him, “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” which called him “the last of the gentleman sleuths.” He insists — politely — that no one has a license to kill. Free from the bonds of playing Bond, Craig exults in Southern-fried lines like, “Mah presence will be ornamental ... a respectful, quiet observer of the truth.” His speech is as delectably slow as blackstrap molasses oozing into an old-fashioned. But he can't tell the jittery assembled clan who hired him to find the killer — someone unknown sent him an envelope stuffed with cash.
And so, in a place the Addams Family might find too gothic — the living room's giant knife sculpture looks like the Game of Thrones throne, and family portraits conceal secret escape windows — the hunt for the killer(s) is on. Could it be Harlan's thwarted son (Michael Shannon, 45), who can't get Harlan to permit lucrative movie options on his books? His icy, snooty daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis, 61) or her ghastly, boorish husband (Don Johnson, 69)? The slightly Gwyneth Paltrow-ish entrepreneur of New Age nonsense (Toni Collette, 47), Harlan's widowed daughter-in-law, who stole $400,000 from him? His crazy extremist online troll grandson (Jaeden Martell)? The Beamer-racing black sheep of the family (Chris Evans, thrilled to play a worse person than Captain America)?
Or could it be Harlan's beloved caregiver, Marta (Ana de Armas, who plays a new kind of Bond girl in Craig's upcoming and final 007 flick, 2020's No Time to Die)? She's an interesting witness because she has an unusual physical affliction: Every time she lies, she throws up. But she freely admits she accidentally gave Harlan 100 milligrams of morphine. And she seems like the only one in the mansion who actually cared about Harlan.
The Thrombeys all claim to feel deeply close to Marta, but nobody can agree on where she came from: Uruguay? Paraguay? Ecuador? Brazil? Clearly, these plutocrat freeloaders really only care about themselves. This underscores the movie's clever, lightly worn political subtext: It's about class struggle and America's current political strife. Knives Out is far better than most Agatha Christie updates, because it's not about nostalgia. It's full of teasing references to today. It would make a better double bill with the South Korean film Parasite, another killer mystery about clashing classes in which the house is a main character, than with any version of Murder on the Orient Express.
It would be perilous to discuss the many clues and red herrings devised by director Rian Johnson, beloved for his critic-pleasing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, his superb time-travel romp Looper and his breakout hit Brick, the inventive Raymond Chandler epic set in a high school, which made Joseph Gordon-Levitt a star. Muddy footprints? Infinitesimal bloodstains on shoes? Ambiguous messages? Dogs that do and don't bark in the night? You'll have to try to outguess Johnson yourself.
One piece of advice, though. If you plan to watch this smashing film when it opens Thanksgiving week, reserve your seat ahead of time. The word's out: Knives Out is the most fun movie of 2019.
AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.