All of this is clockwork, tight as a drum, but that’s just the beginning of the filmmaker’s invention. Around forty minutes in, he casually gives up the entire plot, clueing us in on who did it, and how – and so from then on, we’re waiting for Blanc to catch up with us, rather than the other way around. (It’s the Columbo over Christie approach). And thus big clues and little giveaways are dangled, for the viewer to anxiously await discovery, and even then, it’s not simple; slyly, in turn after turn, he yanks off the tablecloth again.
Delving any deeper into the plot means stepping into spoiler territory, which would be a crime in itself; one of the most thrilling aspects of Knives Out is the precision and deftness with which it doles out information. Suffice it to say that the games Johnson plays with audience sympathy – with which characters we want to get away with something – are ingenious. And the ensemble cast is tip-top; Christopher Plummer is fierce and feisty as the deceased, Toni Collette is uproariously funny as a JV Gwyneth Paltrow, Jamie Lee Curtis’s comic timing has never been sharper, and Chris Evans is clearly having a blast playing, well, the anti-Captain America. But special note must be made of Ana de Armas, who is handed a movie-star role, and fills it; watch closely, the pause Johnson lets her take (in the midst of his Rube Goldberg machine of a movie) to grieve for Plummer, before the movie must progress. Any actor who can take you where she does, in that briefest of moments, can write her own ticket.
Johnson’s script is such a crackler that it’s easy to focus one’s praise there, undervaluing his zippy direction, full of elegant compositions, snazzy camera movements, imaginative needle drops (I never thought I’d describe Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” as “haunted,” but here we are), and, yes, even a car chase – in a Hyundai, no less. But this is going to happen, because that script is such a brain-bender, up to and through a third act that turns all of the conventions and expectations inside out, seeming to tell us everything, and doing nothing of the sort. Mainstream movies have all but forgotten how to work to entertain us, not by the lumbering heft of their effort (in budgets, in effect, in inter-connectedness), but by puzzling out ways to put on a good goddamn show, without talking down to (or over) the audience. Knives Out does that, and well. It’s pure pleasure.
"Knives Out" is in theaters Wednesday.