Knives Out is a murder mystery from Rian Johnson that is sharp and fun

Knives Out (M)

4 stars

This is the kind of movie we don't see often enough nowadays from Hollywood - a classy, star-studded, suspenseful mystery, not replete with gore but relying on its story and characters for its effects. And with enough subtext to make it more than mere fluff.

Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera with Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc in 'Knives Out'. Picture: Supplied

Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera with Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc in 'Knives Out'. Picture: Supplied

Writer-director Rian Johnson has been one of the most interesting filmmakers to emerge in recent years, with films such as the unusual high-school neo-noir Brick and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (which I enjoyed more than some)to his credit.

Knives Out presents Johnson's take on an Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, transplanted to the US in the present day. But he does enough work with the well-worn genre so the film works on its own.

The set-up: in his huge, beautiful mansion, the fabulously successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, still enjoying his late-career renaissance) is found dead, apparently a suicide, the morning after his family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday.

A policeman, a state trooper, and a mysterious private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), turn up to investigate. Craig has a high old time with his Southern accent and a character that seems to combine elements of Hercule Poirot and TV's Lieutenant Columbo.

Now Harlan is dead, the murder investigation is accompanied by a reading of his will, which reveals a nasty surprise for the sons, daughters, in-laws and grandchildren: they've all been disinherited and he's left his fortune to his Latina caretaker and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). So there's an obvious motive for any of them - especially as some of the family members had an argument with Harlan shortly before he died.

Don Johnson as Richard Drysdale and Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Drysdale.

Don Johnson as Richard Drysdale and Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Drysdale.

But there's more to the family members than simple avarice concerning the will's contents, as we discover: stealing money and infidelity are among the other unseemly activities in which they've been engaged.

Among the suspects - played by an excellent cast - are eldest daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real estate mogul who got her start from her father, her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their spoiled son Ransom (Chris Evans - yes, Captain America as a jerk); widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a lifestyle guru, and her college-student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford); Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs his father's publishing house; and his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome).

It's not all that hard to guess who the guilty party is, but it turns out that isn't really - or at least totally - the point. Writer-director Johnson isn't just presenting a simple whodunit.

Besides, obviously, Christie, Johnson's influences seem to be a Choose Your Own Adventure book. One of the early entries in that series was also a murder mystery, Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? - the victim's name seems too close for this to be a coincidence: it seems to be an in-joke in a film that's often tongue in cheek. And apparently the alt-right teenage internet troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell) - Walt and Donna's son - was inspired by some of the angry reactions of Star Wars fans to The Last Jedi (vengeance is sweet).

Giving Knives Out a bit of weight and relevance is its look at class, politics and prejudice. Most of the characters are - each in their own way - spoiled, entitled brats whose main concern is being cut off from Harlan's largesse.

A running joke is that, despite their rather patronising kindness to Marta, nobody quite seems to remember which country she is from. Marta, by all appearances, is the most loyal and selfless character and was the one to whom Harlan was closest: no wonder he left her the estate.

Flaws? There are a lot of characters in the story so some have little to do, functioning merely as red herrings - though most have at least one distinctive moment. And at a few points the clues, character traits and twists seem a little too contrived and precious.

But suspension of disbelief is part of the genre.

With its exceptional cast and plenty to keep the attention, if you're not averse to a spot of classy entertainment, Knives Out is highly recommended.

This story Murder mystery is sharp and fun first appeared on The Canberra Times.