There’s definitely a mystery in the murder mystery “Knives Out” but, for most of the movie, it’s not clear if there’s a murder.
Christopher Plummer’s character, a wealthy mystery writer who enjoys board games and keeping his family guessing about his will, is dead before the title even appears but, almost immediately, we’re told it was not a murder. Eventually, a minor character does get bumped off but part of the fun of the larky caper from writer/director Rian Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and, more important, the brilliant “Looper”) is that everything on screen, starting with Plummer’s “murder,” is not what it seems.
The obvious inspiration for “Knives Out” was Agatha Christie, a subject I know a little something about, and it pays homage to several of her novels. But Johnson’s slightly too clever, twist-for-twists’-sake plotting owes more to Christie knockoff “Murder She Wrote,” a brief clip of which he includes. Also, this is a very deep dive, but one comic line feels intended as a dog whistle to an earlier Christie parody in this same vein. The Michael Caine/Laurence Olivier “Sleuth” contains a joke about “a passing sheep rapist” that’s tonally and thematically similar to this movie’s reference to a character “joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer.”
Almost all of “Knives Out” consists of scenes in which a Southern-fried private detective (Daniel Craig, not quite weird enough to pull off this part) offers a version of what might have happened to cause Plummer’s death. Johnson spends barely any time setting up the mystery, so we miss out on the satisfying feeling of all the pieces falling into place. Instead, we get the “Murder She Wrote” switcheroo style of thriller in which every 10 minutes we discover that what we learned in the previous 10 minutes was wrong.
Still, even if the mystery in “Knives Out” disappoints, it has many pleasures, especially in its first half. That’s when Johnson introduces us to his all-star cast of suspects, who have gathered in the family manor for an evening of cocktails, salmon spread and casual racism. Toni Collette is usually called on to suffer in movies, so it’s a treat to see her in comic mode as a New Agey wastrel, heavy on the uptalk, the vocal fry and the cluelessness (“I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” she coos to Craig). Jamie Lee Curtis leans into the clipped sarcasm of her “self-made” businesswoman. Chris Evans whips out one mean wisecrack after another as her son — including pointing out that his mom “made” her “self” with $1 million from the dead man. And Plummer, seen in flashbacks, displays the dry wit evident in his interviews and acceptance speeches.
In the end, what’s most fun about “Knives Out” is how fresh it feels. Whodunits remain popular in bookstores and libraries, but Hollywood avoids them like an undetectable poison, which is what makes this modern take on the classic format a treat: It’s a visit to a genre so far out of fashion that it actually feels cool again.