Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Fantastic Fest: 'Knives Out' provides old-school mystery laughs

Joe Gross
“Knives Out” sees “Star Wars” director Rian Johnson tackle a murder mystery with an all-star ensemble cast. [Contributed by Claire Folger]

Where do you go when you’ve explored a galaxy far, far away? Agatha Christie-land, apparently.

At least, this is what Rian “The Last Jedi” Johnson did after exiting the “Star Wars” universe. Much in the manner, coincidentally, the original “Star Wars” trilogy paid homage to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, “Knives Out” puts a 2019 coat of paint (read: there are cellphones now and this thing is set in America) on the cozy British mystery that Christie made one of the major subgenres of its era.

There’s a stately manor with a dead body. There are dozen or so suspects, all of whom are connected to the victim in some manner. And there is an eccentric private detective who somehow puts together the pieces of an insanely over-complicated mystery.

» Related: Fantastic Fest at 15: An Austin couple’s love for Alamo Drafthouse’s big event

“Knives Out,” which screened at Fantastic Fest earlier this year and hit theaters Nov. 27, is not quite new territory for Johnson. His terrific 2005 debut, “Brick,” transposed impossibly hard-boiled dialogue onto a high school mystery, making for a genuinely surreal experience. "Knives Out" is a much more straightforward experience. Except for the plot, which is just bonkers-knotty.

Incredibly successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, who does “old, rich, white crank” as well as anyone alive) lives in a massive mansion. His heirs — bone-dry Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), hard-working Walt (Michael Shannon, playing the most normal dude he’s essayed in some time) and Joni (Toni Collette, still the actual best) — have gathered for their father’s 85th trip around the sun. The next day, he is discovered with his throat slit. Other suspects include Linda’s husband, Richard (Don Johnson); Harlan’s kind nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas); and Harlan's grandson, the smug but charming Ransom (Chris Evans, in precisely the sort of part he would have played for a decade had his role as Captain America not intervened).

The cops show up (straight-faced Lakeith Stanfield and a goofy Noah Segan), as does the aforementioned eccentric P.I. named Benoit “Benny” Blanc (Daniel “James Bond” Craig, sporting a Southern accent so awful it’s played for laughs — what I wouldn’t give to see Stanfield and Craig trade roles).

The whole thing chugs along nicely, if never quite as dynamically as you might want, making for a movie genuinely funny here and there, mercilessly yet gently self-aware. (Pointing out tropes is often Stanfield’s job: “This guy practically lived on a Clue board,” and, “That was the dumbest car chase ever,” for example).

Johnson knows we are living in an era of rich, old-money (or old-money-acting) idiots taking very prominent roles in the public consciousness, and, like the more modern HBO show “Succession,” “Knives Out” presents a family that thinks they are clever because they are rich. The cast similarly knows they are playing over-the-top doofs, and few people have looked happier on screen than Evans, now free from the burden of superhero pictures to explore his inner jerk-face.

Similarly crucial to the goofy cheer on display is production designer David Crank, who is probably in Oscar territory for the way he executes the family mansion.

Is “Knives Out” a perfect antidote to the cinematic doldrums? Not entirely. Its commentary about wealth and the America that rich white people do not want isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. (If you are in the mood for fake Christie stories about old wealth versus modernity, Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” written by Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes, is excellent and about 10 times better acted.)

But moment to moment, "Knives Out" is a blast, a mystery confection of good-not-great breeding.

‘Knives Out’

Grade: B

Starring: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette.

Director: Rian Johnson.

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Ritz, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South Lamar, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, IPic, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock 14, Sky Dripping, Southpark, Stone Hill, Violet Crown, Westgate.