Pound for pound, actor for actor, laugh for laugh, “Knives Out” may be the most entertaining movie of the year. It’s a gift and a skewering, a love letter and a pratfall — an old-school murder mystery breathed into riotous new life by a young Jedi master of moviemaking, Rian Johnson. And it really deserves the establishment of a new Oscar category for Best Honey-Baked Ham, whose 2019 recipient could only be Daniel Craig.
The once and future James Bond plays the master detective Benoit Blanc — it’s pronounced “Ben-wa Blanque” — with a twinkle and an outrageous Southern accent. He has been summoned — by whom it’s uncertain — to the home of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a legendary author of murder mysteries who himself has turned up inconveniently dead, his throat slit in an apparent suicide.
“The guy looks like he lived in a ‘Clue’ board,” says the police lieutenant (LaKeith Stanfield) in charge of the case, and, yes, every corner of the Thrombey mansion is jam-packed with oddities, weapons, and relatives. Almost all those relatives were present when the death occurred, and the lieutenant and his enthusiastic trooper assistant (Noah Segan) — he’s a big Harlan Thrombey fan — sit them down one by one on a giant throne made of knives, while Blanc kibitzes from the back of the room.
Whodunit? Who couldn’t have? There’s Harlan’s officious daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her blowhard husband, Richard (Don Johnson); Linda’s brother, Walt (Michael Shannon), who publishes his father’s books, and Walt’s creepy alt-right son (Jaeden Martell); a widowed daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), who runs a Goop-style health business, and her college-student daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford). Have I mentioned Harlan’s caregiver, Marta (Ana de Armas), who’s from Colombia or Ecuador or Nicaragua (no one in the family can remember which)? Or the dashing bad-seed grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), last seen storming from Harlan’s study in a rage? They each seem to have motive; they’re each given delicious top-spin by a cast thrilled to have a literate and funny script.
Rian Johnson is probably best known for writing and directing the last “Star Wars” installment, 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” a.k.a. the One the Critics Liked and the Fan-Boys Hated. But some of us still treasure him for his high school Bogart movie, “Brick” (2005), and the time-travel hootenanny “Looper” (2012) (and we forgive him the misfired whimsy of 2008’s “The Brothers Bloom”). Johnson’s the real deal, an old-school moviemaker with a nose for story, dialogue, and character; his films aren’t art and they’re not trying to be; they’re simply among the most sublimely crafted entertainments of recent years. With “Knives Out,” Johnson’s firing on all cylinders, and it’s a joy to witness.
Curiously, the movie gives us the solution to the mystery about a third of the way in, or it appears to — in fact, the games are just beginning. “Knives Out” isn’t a goofy nostalgia fest like the 1985 “Clue,” with its multiple endings. Johnson’s a serious student of the genre — not only “Clue” but Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and films like “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap” — and he’s out to both observe the rules and send them up. His on-screen representative is Blanc, a chicken-fried version of Hercule Poirot, and Craig has a blast playing the one character who can sniff out clues others miss and is happy to let you know it.
“Knives Out” lets the rest of the cast romp in the field of mendacity and manipulation (except for the one character who can’t tell a lie without becoming physically ill — we haven’t seen that before). If the idea of Curtis, Don Johnson, Collette, and crazy-eyes Shannon bouncing their unique comic energies off each other in a locked-room mystery doesn’t send you scampering to the theater, I just can’t help you. (At the very least, you can tour some lovely local locations, including stops in Maynard, Marlborough, and the Ames mansion in Easton, which production designer David Crank has remodeled into a Gothic wonderland.)
It’s all here, then: secret doors and hounds at midnight, cryptic letters and footprints in the mud, the reading of the will and the rounding up of suspects for the climactic . . . but I‘ve said too much. “Knives Out” plays fast and it plays farcical, but it also plays fair. Most of all, it plays like a dream.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette. At Boston theaters. suburbs. 130 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, drug material).