With Knives Out, American director Rian Johnson has traded in Dashiell Hammet — the inspiration for his 2005 debut feature Brick — for the locked-room murder mysteries of Agatha Christie. In but one of the movie’s stridently self-aware touches, the setting is the estate of world-renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found with his throat slashed early one morning. (“Look around. The guy practically lives on a Clue board,” says one police investigator.) Suicide seems to be the obvious answer — and for his rapacious family members (played by an ensemble cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, and Michael Shannon), there’s no reason to investigate. It wouldn’t really do to reveal any more of the plot — in part because the limited fun of the movie is its narrative engine, but also because its mystery is so easily unravelled. In itself, this is no critical flaw — and indeed, one could argue that because Johnson’s script works to deconstruct his chosen genre, there’s no actual need to create a compelling, satisfying mystery. But apart from its production design (courtesy of David Crank) and game actors (generally underused), the film’s appeal is fairly limited — and will depend mainly on how one responds to Johnson’s brand of humor. Certainly, there’s some amusement to be found in a running joke about what country Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombey’s nurse, immigrated from. But generally, the film isn’t quite so superficially entertaining — though in keeping with the movie’s m.o., the story’s contemporary political resonance has been elevated from subtext into unmissable all-caps text. Given the current state of affairs — particularly in the U.S. — the goal, it would seem, is to offer both entertainment and social commentary. Already a shaky proposition as the former, Knives Out also has an unfortunate tendency to pander while presenting the latter. The film offers catharsis, but withholds the potential bloodletting — and in this context, that’s no real catharsis at all.