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Knives Out review: Rian Johnson cuts a killer follow-up to The Last Jedi

The director swaps Star Wars for an all-star cast in this despicably delightful murder mystery.

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A cast to die for.

Lionsgate

From the moment The Last Jedi came out, the knives were out for writer and director Rian Johnson. His follow-up couldn't be more different from the sci-fi epic. But, perhaps fittingly for the man some fans accused of killing Star Wars, his new film Knives Out is a murder mystery.

Johnson swaps Star Wars for star power in Knives Out, in theaters now. It's a good old-fashioned whodunnit that both celebrates and sends up the genre, but its biggest strength is an all-star cast taking its best stab at the blade-sharp dialogue in this winningly witty mystery.

Chris Evans, Daniel CraigJamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette are among the big names having a ball when a murder exposes the secrets of a despicably dysfunctional clan in a spooky house.

The film opens with a deftly comic set piece as we cut back and forth between the numerous next of kin taking turns in the police interview hot seat. There're a lot of family members to keep track of, but the relationships are laid bare by the comic bitching and backstabbing.

The Thrombey family are the absolute worst. Each relative we meet is more the worst than the last. Evans is a spiteful playboy in a slouchy sweater. Collette is a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque wellness guru. Michael Shannon is a seething also-ran and Don Johnson is the lecherous father of a masturbatory teenage troll. Each has a price and a vice, and they're all leeching off the family patriarch, a famous mystery novelist. But the stern elder statesman, played with a twinkle in his eye by Christopher Plummer, is cutting ties -- until someone cuts his throat.

Lakeith Stanfield's laconic cop and Noah Segan's scene-stealingly naive state trooper arrive to wade through the various intertwined motives and alibis. But the real force behind the investigation is Daniel Craig's independent crime solver Benoit Blanc, a consulting detective in the old-fashioned mold of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie's Poirot. Craig breaks out his Logan Lucky southern accent and gamely chews on the scenery as he circles around the multiple levels of deceit in a wood-paneled house straight out of a certain murder-based board game.

A rich family, secret doors in the walls, incriminating footprints in the garden -- Knives Out gleefully collects familiar tropes from the whodunnit genre and reshuffles them. Johnson shows his cards with dizzying sleight of hand, revealing twists and turns that keep coming back to the impossibility of the murder and a noose tightening around the character we like the most.

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Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan cop out.

Lionsgate

That character is Ana de Armas, a kindly nurse sucked into the machinations of the Thrombey tribe. The venomous family has ignored her and belittled her for too long without noticing that the help hear all the secrets. Placing her as Craig's sidekick laces the investigation with extra suspense and gives a fresh twist to the familiar story. Johnson leans into the mystery rather than the murder, making this as much of a howdunnit as a whodunnit.  

Ultimately, the waspish characters don't have a great deal of depth or emotional realism, and there simply isn't enough elbow room for everybody to really shine. But the whodunnit is a classic formula for a reason, and Knives Out is a delicious update to the genre. It's as playful and intricate as Johnson's conman confection The Brothers Bloom, and a galaxy away from the cosmically epic Last Jedi.

Knives Out arrives less than a month before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker continues on from the Last Jedi. It'll take more than a few disgruntled fans to kill Star Wars, while Knives Out shows there's no blunting Rian Johnson's creativity. After The Last Jedi, he cuts through the controversy with a killer follow-up.

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Originally published Nov. 20.