To talk about Knives Out in any remotely sensible way, I'm going to have to tell you something that happens about one-quarter of the way through the 130-minute movie. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem at all - the convention I have always followed is that spoilers are things that happen in the second half of the film, and anything before that is just set-up - but there's been a bizarre critical omertà around one specific plot point that I think it would be much better to know about before seeing the movie (it would certainly have saved me a whole lot of irritation with the film). So I'm going to go ahead and talk about it, but in deference to the more spoiler-sensitive among you, I will let you know before I get to anything juicy. Wouldn't want to ruin a murder mystery, after all!

And while Knives Out maybe isn't so much of a murder mystery as it pretends to be, it sure does lean into the pretense. It plunges us right into the thick of such a thing, with a pointedly unclear opening shot of dogs running across the grounds of a huge mansion in the morning mist, then moving directly to the moment that housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) discovers the dead body of her employer, bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), lying in his office with his throat slashed. And then we leap ahead a week, as Harlan's distraught caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) receives notice that she needs to return to the Thrombey mansion to talk, yet again, to investigating police officers Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). Turns out everybody who was present at Harlan's 85th birthday party the night before he died has been called back, and they're all a little bit irritated by the intrusion. They're also increasingly confused by the odd fellow hanging around behind the cops for the interviews: this turns out to be legendary private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who was hired by an unknown benefactor to add his world-class talent to figuring out what happened. So we get the interviews, anyway, with all of the members of the Thrombey family being identified with onscreen text before telling their version of events in flashbacks, which mostly line up. Any time somebody comes to a point that they need to mention something personally embarrassing or incriminating; we see the true version of events in flashback, and they lie about it in dialogue in the "present".

Here comes that spoiler (but don't worry, I won't give away anything from the second half).

The most extreme version of that repetitive pattern comes after thirty-ish minutes, when Marta herself has a good long flashback where we learn that she accidentally killed Harlan by administering the wrong medication; he elects to stage his own death by slashing right after sketching out an elaborate plot to give her an alibi, one that even the greatest detective couldn't crack (crime novelist, you'll recall). And so here's my biggest problem - not my only one, but definitely my biggest - with Knives Out: what the fuck is that first act all about, anyway? It's already a bit of an annoying bit of drudgery: writer-director Rian Johnson and editor Bob Ducsay have introduced all of the characters in exactly the same way, and pieced their flashbacks together exactly the same way, and then all of these flashbacks get cut cross-cut together so that they're in an ironic conversation with each other. It's enormously cute, in a labored, blobbily-paced way, and it left me utterly baffled about what kind of point of view the film thinks it's engaging with, or what the hell is going on with its hierarchy of knowledge. One of the fundamental pleasures of a murder mystery, I think, is the way that we slowly learn things along with one character who's our conduit into the movie. Knives Out doesn't limit what we know to anybody; it just starts dropping chunks of exposition in our laps. And once it gets to its extremely early reveal, it retroactively makes all of the exposition we've just received completely pointless anyway.

The good news is that the movie Knives Out actually turns out to be at the 30-minute mark is a good deal better than the cumbersome, self-satisfied movie that it's aiming towards for the first act. Which is not to say that it's not self-satisfied, but at least it's not formally precious. The thing is, now that we know what happened and who the clues are pointing towards, Knives Out frees itself up to cease being an Agatha Christie pastiche, to become an Alfred Hitchcock pastiche instead: instead of being the story of how Benoit Blanc figures out what's happening, it's the story of how Marta, morally pure but still implicated in a crime, keeps a half-step ahead of Blanc. And it's a pretty fine Alfred Hitchcock pastiche at that, capably anchored by de Armas, with Craig providing an appealingly warm, garrulous antagonist we want to root for. Towards the end, it roughly downshifts back into a murder mystery structure, and I frankly don't think it works; it's the whole POV/hierarchy of knowledge thing again, where without a moment's warning the film suddenly becomes yet a third different movie, this one where Blanc was the main character all along - something he has never in fact been.

But that's accentuating the negative, and it's worth reiterating that the middle hour of Knives Out is really quite delightful. It's basically the story of how Marta finds herself standing in opposition to the various gargoyles who make up the Thrombey clan, brought to life by a hugely well-stocked ensemble cast of people having a great time doing caricatures. Some of these caricatures are great: Jamie Lee Curtis's impatient, snappish businesswoman and favored child is one obvious standout, Chris Evans's self-amused spoiled brat is another. Some are pretty obnoxious: Toni Collette's dippy liberal parody of a Gwyneth Paltrow type is going for the lowest-hanging fruit, and Jaeden Martell (formerly Lieberher) isn't really even given room to perform a role as a teenager alt-right Reddit troll; he has a grand total of three sentences to deliver, all of them purely expository, and otherwise exists mostly so that Johnson can have a human-shaped target for some pretty flat jokes. Also, these characters point towards the film's other very worst flaw, which is the way that it mistakes naming things that Twitter cares about is the same as having opinions on those things, and that having opinions on those things is the same as having made a political commentary (and that relentlessly time-stamping a movie with 2019 signifiers is a good thing, rather than a way to guarantee that it will age like soft cheese on a humid day). Which, if turning a Latin American character into the vaguely impersonal Avatar of Goodness in the face of a bunch of smudgy parodies of capitalists counts as political commentary, sure. But Marta deserves more than the fetish object the movie makes of her, and as far as 2019 genre films in which the inhabitants of a sprawling old mansion are used to satirise the awfulness of spoiled rich people, Ready or Not absolutely hands Knives Out its ass at every turn. And that was already something Ready or Not wasn't great at.

But here I am, accentuating the negative again. As long as it keeps the Thrombeys as colorful monsters in the background where they belong, and as long as it favors Marta's POV over Blanc's, Knives Out works like gangbusters. It's thrilling, at times genuinely surprising (the effective cheat it gets to make by providing us the answer to the big question in advance: we're most likely not looking at the small questions), and it runs through those 130 minutes at top speed; that's exactly, to the minute, the running time most likely to piss me off, and I was completely taken aback at how swiftly the film arrived at its ending. There's not much going on visually, but production designer David Crank and set decorator David Schlesinger went to town on the Thrombey mansion, filling it up with all sorts of fussy details suggesting what kind of family this is and who, specifically, Harlan was (it's a bit of a shame that Johnson and Ducsay don't give us at least a few more chances to soak it in - honestly, the editing is kind of a problem throughout the movie, chopping things into unnecessarily small pieces and racing away from wide shots even though it's interactions between characters that serves as the movie's beating heart). And cinematographer Steve Yedlin is having a hell of a good time with wide-angle lenses, giving a carnivalesque vibe to the already garish setting and humans inhabiting it. Basically, there's a good, bouncy lark to be had in here, and once you get through the cumbersome fake-out of the opening act, it's not at all hard to find it.

For more spoilery fun, Catherine walks us through the film's twisty ending.