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Family mystery

Cutting whodunnit 'Knives Out' more than meets the eye

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Conventional wisdom says -- now more than ever -- that politics best be avoided at holiday dinners, lest family members begin to go at each other. Positioned as the big new release of Thanksgiving week, "Knives Out" includes a politically contentious dinner argument among family members, but the cheeky mystery has something else that these people have kept in the family: murder.

Before science-fiction hits "Looper" or "Star Wars: Episode VIII -- The Last Jedi," writer-director Rian Johnson broke out with his 2005 debut "Brick," a byzantine mystery in a neo-noir vein. As such, "Knives Out" plays like a return to Johnson's roots, albeit with an all-star cast backing him up. By opening on dead leaves and fog stretching out before a foreboding, rambling mansion, Johnson establishes a Gothic setting for his Agatha Christie playset -- one that he just as swiftly undermines with merry, self-aware whimsy. This is a world where murder's most foul, everyone's a suspect, and an easily underestimated detective always gets his man or woman.

Inside that mansion lies the body of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), patriarch of a family of natural-born backstabbers. Thrombey pens murder-mystery novels that have sold over 80 million copies; his net worth sadly disrupting family relations. So it's not a huge surprise when he's found, throat slit, the morning after his 85th birthday party. Everyone present that night seems to have had a motive for the murder, revealed in a cheeky series of police interviews that launch the story. There's Harlan's tough-as-nails eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their ne'er-do-well son, "Ransom" (Chris Evans); Harlan's son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife, Donna (Riki Lindhome), and their "alt-right-troll" teenage son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell); Harlan's lifestyle guru daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford); not to mention Harlan's indeterminately elderly mother (K Callan).

Into this den of vipers come a couple of cops (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) escorting "private detective of great renown" Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig doing a southern-fried dialect). Also described as "the last of the gentleman sleuths," Blanc prefers to present himself as "a respectful, quiet, passive observer of the truth." He belongs to that line of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, and Columbo, encompassing the shrewd and the eccentric. An anonymous benefactor foots the bill for Blanc's presence, adding to the mystery. Blanc appoints Harlan's nurse and trusted companion Marta (Ana de Armas) as his "Watson"-- her inability to tell a lie without vomiting signals her morality -- and the game is afoot.

"Knives Out" cannot help but be fanciful fun, particularly for murder-mystery fans. As with "Brick," Johnson plays fair with his plotting while evincing enormous skill by tying the story in knots that must be satisfyingly untwisted. Johnson adds ballast to what would otherwise be a lightweight tale by suggesting sociopolitical allegory: a hard-working immigrant pitted against wealthy, apparently "self-made overachievers" who are actually trust-fund babies and layabouts, some of them given to spouting racist anti-immigration rhetoric (in a running joke, the rich folks keep misinterpreting Martha's heritage). The tart dialogue and clever plot get assists from delightful production design, art direction and set decoration (David Crank, Jeremy Woodward, and David Schlesinger, respectively) and an overqualified ensemble (the film's one disappointment: not finding yet more ways to exploit the actors). This Thanksgiving, nothing says treachery like family, but don't worry, Johnson's only kidding. I think.

— Peter Canavese

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