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December 8, 2019

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‘Knives Out,’ a Trump era whodunit

RIAN Johnson’s “Knives Out” unravels not just a good old-fashioned murder mystery but the very fabric of the whodunit, pulling at loose threads until it has intricately, woven together something exceedingly delightful.

For all the detective tales that dot television screens, the Agatha Christie-styled whodunit has gone curiously absent from movie theaters.

The nostalgia-driven “Murder on Orient Express” (2017), popular as it was, didn’t do much to dispel the idea the genre has essentially moved into retirement.

Johnson has shown a rare cunning for enlivening old genres with densely plotted deconstruction.

He makes very clever movies (“Looper,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) that sometimes verge on overelaboration.

But in the whodunit, too much is usually a good thing.

Give us all the movie stars, plot twists and murder weapons you can find. When done well, there is almost nothing better.

And “Knives Out,” while it takes a little while to find its stride, sticks the landing, right up to its doozy of a last shot.

The whodunit turns out not only to have a few moves left but to be downright acrobatic.

The film begins like many before it: with a dead body that needs accounting for.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a best-selling mystery writer, is found with his throat cut in a small upstairs room in his Victorian mansion.

Thrombey is extremely wealthy with an expansive family of spoon-fed, entitled eccentrics. And as much intrigue as there is about his death, for his children there’s even more about his inheritance.

There’s his relator daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her cheating husband Richard (Don Johnson), a vocal Trump supporter; his son Walt (a sweater-wearing Michael Shannon) who runs his father’s publishing house; lifestyle guru daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette); and his playboy grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), the black sheep of the family.

There are others, too, most notably Harlan’s trusted caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas).

The Thrombeys casually refer to her as “the help” and, in a running gag, are all over the map when it comes to her native South American country.

A deeper political dimension slowly takes shape as the family’s cavalier indifference to Marta plays a role in the movie’s unspooling mysteries.

Juggling themes of class privilege, immigration and ethnocentricity, “Knives Out” is a whodunit for the Trump era.

Some mysteries first submerge themselves in set-up, the crime in question and the entrance of its central detective.

Johnson is too restless for such an approach.

He favors flashbacks, by the boat load, to go along with elaborate plot mechanics of reversals and perspective switcheroos.

That gives “Knives Out” a somewhat clunky and imperfectly paced first act, something Johnson makes up for with the payoff of his finale.

But “Knives Out,” in the end, believes earnestly in the whodunit, it just wants to turn it inside out.


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