Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a suspenseful murder mystery that keeps viewers on the edge of their seat.

A well-crafted murder mystery is less about the destination than it is about the journey. Knives Out is a rare example of one that has the atmosphere, the suspense, the structure, a delightful cast of characters and then also sticks the landing with a satisfying conclusion. It is so confidently written and directed, with a great pace, amusing dialogue, clever plotting and energetic performances. This is the type of movie where you just go for the ride, enjoying the craziness along the way. This is one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

Harlan Thrombey is a beloved, and very wealthy, writer of mystery novels. His entire family relies on him to give them jobs and financial support. On the day after his 85th birthday party, which they all attended, he is found dead, his throat slit in his study. It is initially ruled a suicide, yet renowned private detective Benoit Blanc has his doubts. Everyone is a suspect.

That synopsis basically covers the first ten minutes. Then the twistiness begins. There is a lot of it. What is impressive is the way writer/director/producer Rian Johnson handles his material. He sets up situations where you think you know what is going on, then he reveals it, only to stack more revelations on top on them. Still, it is the individual moments that make this so fun: insult battles between family members, flashbacks that do not show as much as they seem to (or maybe more than they seem to) and deductions that move things forward without ever feeling like exposition.

The writing is very smart and witty and will probably get most of the praise. However, his direction should get some love as well. It is a lot of style, with enough substance to keep things constantly moving. Knives Out is surprisingly funny. While some of that comes from the performances, several of his directorial touches help. His framing gets laughs, as do several perfectly-timed reaction shots. As usual for the genre, the narrative does hide stuff from the audience; still, it is all in plain sight. We just do not always know what it is we are looking at. Johnson is constantly sure of what he is doing, making it easy to sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

A large part of that show are the actors, diving fully into the characters. Daniel Craig plays the celebrated investigator with an exaggerated southern accent and an intense curiosity about the case. Some may find his mannerisms annoying; I found them hilarious. Chris Evans also seems to be having a jolly time as the obnoxious grandson of the victim, laughing at his relatives’ struggles. The rest of the cast is filled with talented actors such as Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Jewish actor Tony Curtis), Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, LaKeith Stanfield, Ana de Armas and Christopher Plummer. They all do a lot with a little, an important skill in a big ensemble.

Knives Out is exciting, compelling and consistently entertaining. I want to see it again, not because the ending makes me rethink the action, just because it was a really good experience. It has mystery, drama and comedy, each in exactly the right doses. It is a tremendous time with a strong cast. This time of year, multiplexes are packed with either spectacle or awards bait. I suppose this falls in the former category, though the spectacle is less visual than verbal. But what a wonderful spectacle.

4½ out of 5

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