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Short Takes: Knives Out

(Rian Johnson; USA; Lionsgate; Opening November 27)

“The guy practically lives on a Clue board,” grumbles a cop (Lakeith Stanfield) early in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. He’s talking about Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery author whose mysterious death on the eve of his 85th birthday spurs an investigation of his family. A spiky ensemble cast plays the assorted heirs— and suspects—who reside at the Thrombey mansion: Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon, among others. There to suss them out is a comically exaggerated “gentleman sleuth” named Benoit Blanc (a bug-eyed Daniel Craig).

Thrust among these warring relatives is our protagonist, immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, unglamorous and all the better for it). Marta is a good-natured young woman who is drawn into an unholy alliance of sorts with square-jawed family black sheep Ransom (Evans). As a working-class Hispanic woman among the very white, very rich Thrombeys, Marta is treated with a flimsy compassion that never disguises the condescension. With the gently anti-Trump subtext of its class tensions, Knives Out manages to be lighthearted without ever feeling lightweight.

Johnson constantly upends expectation, creating a collapsible murder mystery where each potential cliché implodes and evolves into something else entirely. With its narrative double bluffs and knowingly byzantine plot twists, Knives Out nimbly swerves around the pitfalls of murder mysteries past. Full of rhythmic verve and pithy humor, this is uproariously entertaining filmmaking.