An Agatha Christie-style murder-mystery gets a modern update in the excellent new whodunnit, “Knives Out.” Under the assured direction of Rian Johnson, the creaky old mystery format takes on new life, with a film that is both a head scratcher and a crowd pleaser.

As is always the case in these types of films, we start this story with a death. This time around it’s a wealthy old novelist (Christopher Plummer) who is found one morning with a slit throat. The police have ruled his death a suicide, but the case is reopened when a private detective (Daniel Craig) starts poking around. It turns out that the deceased writer has a whole family of nasty relatives, all of whom have ample motives for murder.

The relatives are all comic monsters, and while they frequently come across as caricatures that would be at home in the board game Clue, the performances are so outlandish that they give the film much of its macabre humor. I generally frown on actors who chew the scenery, but they are easy to forgive when they make the film so much fun to watch.

On the other end of the spectrum is the writer’s kind-hearted nursemaid (Ana de Armas). This young woman is the only normal person in the entire cast, so she gives the audience an entry point into the story. As things start to spiral out of control, tension rises thanks to the fact that we actually care about what will happen to the poor nurse. Credit de Armas for her effective girl-next-door performance that allows us to become emotionally invested in the film’s outcome.

More credit to the writer/director for plotting such a superb mystery. It’s a lot of fun watching the events unfold in flashbacks and trying to decipher the little clues that pop up in each of these scenes. If that’s not enough of an accomplishment, Johnson reveals what actually happened early in the movie and has no problem keeping our attention as we wonder whether justice will be served or not.

More kudos to the production design team, who shine with spot-on costumes and a creaky old mansion that is stuffed to the brim with off-putting bric-a-brac. You take one look at the mansion and can just tell that somebody’s going to be murdered.

This is one of those films that doesn’t have any pretensions of grandeur. It only wants to be a darkly comic murder mystery, and it succeeds brilliantly. The performances are amusing, and the crime investigation is challenging. Most importantly, the film is a lot of fun. If you need some adult-level escapism over the next few weeks, “Knives Out” proves to be the perfect antidote for holiday stress.

Reviews by Sean McBride, “The Movie Guy,” are published weekly in the Idaho Press and seen weekly on KFDM-TV. Sean welcomes your comments via email at smcbride@sbgtv.com.

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