‘Knives Out’ offers gleefully venomous family-drama full of murder and intrigue with a surprisingly warm heart

“I want you to know he’s not coming back. His blood is frozen. Still, there is no point letting it go to waste.”

— “Knives Out,” Radiohead

Murder-mysteries are tricky to pull off, and complex family dramas that don’t ask you to like any members of the family are even trickier.

Yet, somehow, director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) manages to blend both types of stories into a compelling dark comedy that features plenty of the back-stabbing, unexpected plot twists and snappy, hard-boiled dialogue you come to expect from this type of movie.

While “Knives Out” takes a certain amount of glee in the venom the various members of the Thrombey family spew at each other, it’s Ana de Armas in the central role of Marta Cabrera who grounds the whole movie by refusing to give in to the toxicity around her.

Marta is the nurse and caregiver of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the elderly patriarch who built an empire by writing pulpy crime novels. When the movie opens, Harlan is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party in what first appears to be an open and shut case of suicide. That is until mysterious detectives show up to the magisterial Thrombey estate and start asking questions that suspiciously suggest foul play.

Detective Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) is trailed by Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan, a Rian Johnson regular) as he questions the various members of the sprawling Thrombey family.

First off, there’s Harlan’s mother, Wanetta (K Callan), followed by the two children and their spouses: Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is married to Richard (Don Johnson), and Walter (Michael Shannon), who is married to Donna (Riki Lindhome).

Then the grandkids: Ransom (Chris Evans), Megan (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell).

Lastly, those who aren’t related by blood but live in the Thrombey mansion: Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson ) and his daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), who was married to Harlan’s deceased son, Neil.

If all of that seems like a bit of information overload, don’t worry.

Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, certainly throws a lot of characters at you quickly in the movie’s first act, but his sharp writing and keen sense for pacing help the character relationships all snap together quickly.

Watching the detectives question each member of the family and catch them obviously lying about the petty ways they’ve wronged each other feels like having Johnson sit next to you in the theater, occasionally saying  “You think he killed Harlan? He’s such a bad liar” and “No, it has to be her. The detectives definitely think she’s the main suspect.”

“Knives Out” wouldn’t be a proper Agatha Christie-style whodunit without Johnson bringing in his own Hercule Poirot in the form of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private detective with a goofy Kentucky accent who was hired by an anonymous employer to investigate Harlan’s death.

The vicious family drama keeps the plot moving along at a steady pace, but it’s the partnership between Blanc and Marta that gives the film its warmhearted center and ultimately makes it more than simply a well-told mystery movie.

Craig plays Blanc as a wizened, but slightly bumbling, veteran of these types of cases, while Marta, the daughter of an undocumented mother,  tags along as the terrified newbie who has a secret or two of her own that she’s trying to conceal.

Throughout the movie, Marta is faced with thinly-veiled condescension from the Thrombey’s over their perceived higher status, which serves to prop up two crucial points that are essential for making “Knives Out” work:

1.) Watching a rich family pretend to be nice to a struggling woman with ancestry outside of the United States adds a political undertone that heightens the drama without ever feeling tacked on just so Johnson can score cheap, political points.

2.) It’s next to impossible not to root for an underdog, so our allegiance is with Marta immediately, and as more is revealed about the kindhearted nature of her character, she becomes a much-needed source of empathy in the middle of all the treachery and deceit.

And right at the moment you think you’ve surely untangled the web to discover the truth, the film takes a turn to remind you that you’ve been looking in the wrong place the whole time, and the game is still afoot.

Last Minute Thoughts: After 2017’s “Logan Lucky” and now “Knives Out,” I’ll watch any movie where Daniel Craig speaks with a silly southern accent.

If you like this movie, I highly recommend Rian Johnson’s first movie “Brick” from 2005. It’s not as polished as his later work, but it has a compelling lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a ton of charm.

There’s a reference to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, one of my favorite books, that totally threw me for a loop. Pynchon writes deeply about paranoia, and “Knives Out” is a paranoid film, so I had to wonder if I was reading too much into everything or too little.

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