A whodunit film may be complex—in fact, it should be—but its appeal is simple: It just needs a cast of characters; a murderous crime; and a detective who will unravel the mystery in, oh, approximately two hours. Well-combined, these elements create a satisfying challenge: Use our hard-won knowledge of human nature to solve the mystery before the denouement.
With Knives Out, Rian Johnson has stepped up the pleasure factor with a supergroup-level cast. “I’m a whodunit junkie,” Johnson tells me over the phone. As such, he watched plenty of them—and noted that whodunits were usually period pieces set in Britain (partly because of a surfeit of Agatha Christie adaptations). “So the idea of doing an original one about America in 2019 seemed really exciting: the combination of an incredibly fun genre that is a rollercoaster ride for the audience, kind of a puzzle box... and you have an all-star cast.”
That’s no empty boast. His murder-mystery about the well-heeled Thrombey family stars Christopher Plummer as thriller-author patriarch Harlan Thrombey; Jamie Lee Curtis as his daughter, dry girlboss Linda; Don Johnson as her bon vivant husband, Richard; Toni Collette as Joni, a Goop-adjacent wellness guru; Daniel Craig as close-to-caricature detective Benoit Blanc; and Chris Evans as the family’s scoffing black sheep, Ransom. While the celebrity pile-on can be a successful strategy (Love, Actually; Marvel movies), there’s little it can do to salvage unsound material. Fortunately, Knives Out is more than solid, and audiences responded over the long Thanksgiving weekend, filling theaters to the tune of $41.7 million.
The Thrombeys are a classically vainglorious clan of the white upper middle class. Linda thinks of herself as a successful businesswoman because she got to the top by herself (her father’s millions had nothing to do with it). Richard’s the kind of boozy guy you can totally get along with—at least until his casual racism starts leaking all over the place. And Ransom is the handsome, entitled jerk used to getting whatever he wants.
If it sounds all too familiar, that’s on purpose. Johnson reminds me that Christie’s books weren’t hermetic tales, divorced from reality. “She wasn't an incredibly political writer, but she was always plugging into contemporary society through her characters,” he says. Knives Out is made of the same stuff. The Thrombeys tell on themselves via their treatment of sole outsider Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and friend. When Harlan dies, apparently by his own hand, his relatives condescendingly praise her, promising she’ll be taken care of. When Detective Blanc suggests that Harlan may have been murdered, though, their ranks close up faster than you can say “Drain the swamp.”
The superstar cast clearly enjoys the romp. Lakeith Stanfield gets to do his best dumb cop, while Christopher Plummer is the model of a cranky, genteel paterfamilias. According to Johnson, Collette came in with her highly strung “golden goddess” fully formed. Craig’s first appearance as Blanc is delightfully disorienting: quirky, abrasive, and finished with an over-the-top southern accent inspired by historian Shelby Foote. Johnson namechecks Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple—and long-running TV series Columbo—as inspiration: “All the great whodunit detectives—there's something that makes you not quite take them seriously, until you realize that they're sharp as a tack and have the whole thing put together.”
Craig’s performance brims with delight, and it’s not the only one. Evans, particularly, was like a pig in mud, despite his character’s self-regard and snottiness, says Johnson: “I could tell Chris was really eager to do this, and I could tell he was going to have a lot of fun.” Lest we forget, Evans has played dark before; in fact, Johnson thought of him for the role after seeing the Kenneth Lonergan play Lobby Hero, “where he played a real jerk, and he was so good.”
The whodunit traditionally banks on the mystifying multifariousness of people, and casting A-listers in these roles adds another layer, bringing the audience’s perceptions of the performers into the mix. Richard is one of the first to show his true colors under pressure, and Don Johnson—also currently deploying a similar ambiguous all-American wholesomeness in Watchmen—easily delivers this recognizable brand of villain. “As Don described to me, he imagines his character having a little bit of a day-drinking buzz all the time,” Johnson says. “He’s also got that easygoing brashness that covers some despicable attitudes about some things.”
But the Thrombeys’ biggest cipher is Ransom. Calculating his purpose is a considerable task. This family is detestable, and they detest him; we detest them, so could we be on his side? His white fisherman sweater is the most memorable garment in the film, so worn and unpretentious. In a movie about the evils of cash, his name is, literally, Ransom—go figure. And, juiciest of all, he’s played with no small amount of electric rage by Evans, a Hollywood golden boy, with Captain America baggage to boot. Or, as Johnson puts it, a pre-existing relationship with an audience that can be played to, and played against. “You’ve got to see it not as baggage, but as ammunition,” he says. “If there was someone in that part who the audience inherently wanted to like, that would help the arc overall.”
Ransom is a crucial character: a litmus test for the family, for Blanc, and the audience. As soon as Evans steps into frame, you’re in a tug-of-war with yourself. How much can you trust this man? You’ve seen him before, so many times—both the actor and this type of snarling, self-involved scion of privilege—surely you know what he’ll do next?
For all that the film’s rambunctious energy relies on the wattage of marquee actors, the central performance belongs to de Armas (whose upcoming role in 2020's new Bond film may cement her own top-billing status). Her character has the responsibility of carrying the film’s moral weight; once you realize just how heavy it is, that seems almost cruel. Knives Out knows how selfish people work, manipulating others for their own ends, and Marta is so pure she can’t even lie without throwing up. Yet she isn’t without natural resources of wit and survival. “Besides being an incredibly skilled actor and having those Audrey Hepburn eyes, where you’re just instantly on her side, you can also tell that she’s a fighter,” Johnson says.
Marta, a young immigrant with a lot to lose, is the kind of person the Thrombeys barely register. They think they know her, but can’t remember which country she comes from. (Read: They don’t care.) But she’s well aware of that; that’s why she has to pay the most attention of all. In its rich array of high-profile, well-to-do talent, Knives Out replicates the dangerous dynamic the less-powerful contend with every day: Wealthy people accustomed to a certain level of ease, revealing their spiritual deficits with every knock. And if you’re careful—alert to every clue, along with Marta—you can work it all out before the end. Or can you?
Originally Appeared on Vogue