‘Knives Out’ Review: Murder Most Clever

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.

Harlan is a charming monster, a type that Plummer excels in playing, and it’s a shame that he isn’t around longer. A renowned mystery writer, Harlan has written stacks of best sellers, amassing wealth and cultivating a grasping, desperate dependence in his avaricious family. Someone clearly had a good time coming up with the titles of his tomes, which read like winking clues or chapter headings: “Vulcan’s Den,” “The Badger,” “Nick of Time,” “Ultimatum,” “This Little Piggy.” A genre savant, Johnson understands that one of the pleasures of mystery stories is how they turn viewers into detectives, eager amateur sleuths who also sift through the clues, false and not.

Johnson scatters enough hints to keep you busy guessing as characters enter and exit amid abrupt cuts and flashbacks. Things get complicated, though they never deepen, which seems by design. “Knives Out” is essentially an energetic, showy take on a dusty Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, with interrogations, possible motives and dubious alibis. Soon after Harlan’s body is discovered, the law (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) questions the family, a finely curated collection of gargoyles presided over by a crisp Jamie Lee Curtis and a leaden Michael Shannon as Harlan’s children, and rounded out by Don Johnson, Chris Evans and Toni Collette, among others.

You spend a lot of time with Benoit and Marta, who are never as engaging as the size of their roles suggest they’re meant to be. Benoit’s part in the investigation is another mystery; he sniffs around like its lead dog but mostly comes across as a delectable chew toy for the director. When you first meet Benoit, he is sitting in an armchair, a nod to a genre staple and some teasing misdirection: He is, you soon appreciate, a hands-on sleuth if not an especially penetrative one. He presses witnesses, roams the grounds and sticks close to Marta, the most sympathetic and sentimentalized character in a movie that otherwise exhibits an exuberant skepticism about human nature.

As the inquiry builds, the suspects are stripped of their defenses, exposing pettiness, sharp teeth, false fronts and one pure heart. Johnson fills the frame with looming heads, folds in a nifty car chase and, in a striking tableau, sets loose the hounds. M. Emmet Walsh (who appeared in the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple”) pops in, as does a photo of the magician Ricky Jay, who died before he could play Walsh’s role. Johnson’s own sleight of hand is estimable, even if his effort to add politics into the crowded mix rings hollow. The machine is what matters here, and he has clearly had such a good time engineering it that it’s hard not to feel bad when you don’t laugh along with him.

Knives Out

Rated PG-13 for blood on the floor. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

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