'Knives Out' movie still

The ensemble cast of Rian Johnson's new film, "Knives Out."

A crisp autumn night? A remote New England mansion? A family gathering fraught with vendetta? Someone was almost bound to die.

Famed mystery author Harlan Thrombey's (Christopher Plummer) 85th birthday proves to be his last when he turns up lifeless in his study the morning after the party, having apparently slashed his own throat. A week later, yellow tape and badged officers still flood his massive estate, much to the chagrin of Harlan's similarly successful — though more than a little entitled — progeny: son Walt (Michael Shannon), daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette).

But even with a knife bearing Harlan's blood and fingerprints safe in an evidence bag, things can't help but seem fishy. Like I said, the setting and circumstances are almost too theatrical to be true.

Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a charismatic, Southern-drawled private eye fresh off a star-making profile in The New Yorker. He initially lingers with supposed indifference in the background as local police question Harlan's next of kin, but when Blanc butts in with some questions of his own, he starts to see right through the remaining Thrombeys. With the help of Marta (Ana De Armas), Harlan's good-natured though helplessly transparent nurse, it becomes quickly clear that hostility runs from the top of this family's tree all the way down — an animosity that Blanc suspects just might have turned murderous.

Thus begins "Knives Out," Rian Johnson's invigoratingly fresh ode to a genre that's two or three decades out-of-style. While Johnson has made his love for and inspiration by Agatha Christie perfectly clear, this film is neither bound by the Queen of Crime's formula nor her era's limitations. Sure, this is a modern whodunit in the sense that its story features not-so-subtle political jabs and is aided by the use of smartphones, email and video surveillance, but its modernity comes much more from its rare ability to surprise, perplex, satisfy and thrill filmgoers of all ages.

Johnson's wide-eyed vision deserves the most credit for how relentlessly engrossing and fun "Knives Out" is. Known for injecting contemporary quirks into bygone film traditions — e.g., his brilliant 2005 high-school noir "Brick" — the writer-director crafts a setup that involves well-worn murder-mystery tropes before throwing them into utter disarray. But this isn't mere subversion for subversion's sake, which was the main issue with Johnson's previous film, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Rather, he takes some of the genre's trademark storytelling techniques and pushes them to the limit, resulting in a twist-a-minute story that narrowly avoids becoming cheap or manipulative.

The energy and gutsiness behind the camera is paralleled in front of it, though marketing would lead one to believe this is Daniel Craig's movie. He's no doubt delightful and the source of several great laughs, but De Armas is the clear champion here, carrying the bulk of the film by acting largely as the audience's eyes and ears while also the source of the story's main emotional heft. She's proven brilliant in a supporting capacity in movies like "Blade Runner: 2049," but in this perhaps her highest-profile mainstream role she absolutely shines as the film's beating heart.

De Armas' dominance is even more impressive given the crowded call sheet. Of course this is necessary for a film with the tagline, "Hell, any of them could have done it," but a couple of the characters in "Knives Out" can't help but feel throwaway, incomplete and distracting, especially given the rest of the cast's well-roundedness. However, what will prove this movie's true make-or-break quality is just how packed it is with red herrings and plot conveniences. Again, Johnson's goal to test the boundaries of these devices is largely effective, but those demanding a more clean-cut, Christie-like story will be met with something quite the opposite.

Still, whether you're heavily steeped in or brand new to the whodunit genre, "Knives Out" is bound to give you an electrically fun time at the movies. Between intriguing mystery and great laughs — not to mention, Chris Evans turning bastardly for the first time in years — what else do you need for a perfect Thanksgiving cinematic getaway? One thing's for sure: It'll make you feel better about your own family.

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Rating: 4.5/5

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John Battiston, who screened "Knives Out" at the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival, is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at jbattiston@loudountimes.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.

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