Knives OutReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/26/19 17:35:08
(Worth A Look)
If I had to pick a single title as my all-time favorite mystery movie, I would choose “The Thin Man” (1934) without a single moment’s hesitation. I must confess, however, that my love of the film has precious little to do with the actual mystery element. In fact, I have watched that particular film dozens of times over the years and yet, if you asked me right now to tell you the identity of who did it, I could not do it. The reason I love the film so much is because it is far more interested in presenting colorful characters embodied by perfectly cast directors spouting off sparkling dialogue and presented with an immense amount of wit and style —things that rate much higher in my book than the comparatively mundane details of the plot. Over the years, I have found that many of my other favorite examples of the genre—things like “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Chinatown” and “The Big Lebowski”—have tended to lean that way as well and that is why they have managed to stand the test of time. “Knives Out,” the new film from writer-director Rian Johnson, his followup to a little thing called “The Last Jedi,” may not quite be in the same league as those classics but it does wisely follow in their formidable footprints and the result and the result is a witty whodunnit that brings a breath of fresh air to an otherwise stale genre.Of course, to give away any of the secrets or plot twists, no matter how seemingly important, would be grossly unfair and I will therefore promise to step very lightly. I think that, without causing too much disruption, I can say that the film revolves around the death of best-selling mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who was found in the bedroom of his rambling and remote manor with his throat slit, an apparent suicide. As the film opens, about a week after his death, the police have summoned members of his immediate family back to the house for some additional questions. Eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) brag about how their business successes but tend to overlook the fact that Harlan funded their endeavors. Son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the family’s publishing business but again, his “success” is based entirely on the largesse of his father. Although Harlan’s other son has passed away, his widow, would-be lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Colette) still shows up to get money from him to help finance the college education of her daughter (Katherine Langford), which he is happy to do, as well as her own lifestyle, which he is less happy to do. Then there is Ransom (Chris Evans), the black-sheep son of Linda and Richard who thrives on blowing in suddenly from who knows where, riling everyone up and then smugly departing until the next time he needs money.
While the police are doing these interviews—in which each family member not-so-subtly cuts down the others while making themselves seem absolutely golden—there are two other key figures, not members of the Thrombey clan, in attendance. One is Marta (Ana de Armas), who has been working for several months as Harlan’s personal nurse. Although the rest of the Thrombeys love to talk about how they think of her as part of the family—even as none of them can actually name the country that she actually came from—it is clear that Harlan genuinely liked her, if only because she was the only one in the house that did not look at him primarily as a sentient ATM machine. Marta is so good-hearted, in fact, that she has an affliction that causes her to literally vomit if she tells even the tiniest lie. The other is Benot Blanc (Daniel Craig) a celebrated detective (with a name like that, what else could he be?) whose bona fides were celebrated in a recent “New Yorker” article. He has been hired by a mysterious and unknown client to assist the police in their investigations and yes, he most certainly makes use of Marta’s quirk in order to winnow down the suspects and discover the guilty party behind what may not have been a suicide after all.
How all of this unfolds—and occasionally refolds upon itself—I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say, Johnson has created a pretty nifty narrative that sets things up in a traditional manner and then just as quickly removes those traditional underpinnings in such an audacious manner that one’s interest is immediately piqued, if only to see how he manages to paint himself out of what seems to be a pretty limited corner without resorting to cheating to duck the obstacles that he put in his own path. (He does and he does.) That is fun enough but what makes the film work as well as it does is that Johnson does not stop there. Instead, he has also taken care to supply the film with characters who are caricatures, to be sure, but very funny caricatures that both exemplify and nicely spoof the kind of people who wind up populating these kinds of stories. It then gets really inspired in the second half when the surviving Thrombeys, threatened with the loss of their fortune, begin turning on each other and the film becomes a smart and often very funny observation of class conflict in the Trump era and the lengths that the eminently self-satisfied privileged—especially those who claim to have made their fortunes entirely on their own, despite all evidence to the contrary—will go to in order to continue their rarefied way of life by any means necessary.
The actors clearly realize that they have all been given juicy roles and tear into them with a glee and zeal that they do not even attempt to hide. Yes, to call the performances by most of the cast hammy is to wildly understate the case—especially when it comes to Craig, whose latest take on a Southern accent (following “Logan Lucky”) would give even Foghorn Leghorm pause—but these are smart actors who know exactly what they are doing and who realize that there is a time and a place for quiet and deft underplaying and this particular film is not it. The only one who gives a restrained performance is de Armas and, much like her character, she winds up coming across as far more resilient than one might expect. She has popped up in films here and there—her highest profile gig before now was probably her turn as the hologram in “Blade Runner 2049”—and usually in sex-bomb roles. She has the trickiest role by far—the bit about vomiting whenever telling a lie would be enough to do in most actors—and she handles it beautifully, deploying Marta’s quiet and largely underestimated intelligence in ways that wind up paying off in spades as the film careens towards its appropriately over-the-top finale. She is especially good in her scenes with Craig, which is a good thing since she will be starring opposite him in a few months in the new James Bond movie.“Knives Out” may not completely live up to the hype that it has generated on the festival circuit over the last couple of months—it doesn’t quite transcend the genre in the manner that Johnson may have been going for (he has a tendency to include bits of foreshadowing that are neither as subtle nor as clever as he thinks them to be) and some of the secondary members of the cast end up getting shuffled to the side in order to keep the important plates spinning. And yet, the film as a while is so much fun to watch—there is certainly never a dull moment to be had—that most viewers won’t even notice those problems and the rest will be willing to forgive them because of all the genuine twisty thrills and big laughs that it does supply (including a joke about “Gravity’s Rainbow” that essentially earns a star all by itself). Frankly, I wouldn’t mind looking at it a second time before too long and for a film of this particular type, that is about the biggest compliment that I can offer
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