Knives OutReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/18/19 12:37:22
Rian Johnson’s amiably masterful "Knives Out" has been a surprise sleeper hit in the past few weeks, and I think I know why: It takes a lot of tensions and absurdities of today and turns them into a comforting evening’s entertainment.The genre is murder-mystery, and the tone is somewhere between wicked and tongue-in-cheek, but the message is an odd partner to all that: “Kindness will win.” Beyond that, I owe you the courtesy of saying practically nothing about the plot, other than that wealthy mystery-novel writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies under suspicious circumstances and there are many people who could be responsible.
Except there aren’t, because we see fairly early on how Harlan died — except for the parts we don’t learn about till later. Harlan’s family comes to his mansion for his 85th birthday, and all of them are terrible. His grim-faced daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her sleazy husband (Don Johnson); their black-sheep son (Chris Evans); Harlan’s saturnine son (Michael Shannon) and his racist wife (Riki Lindhome); Harlan’s GOOP-like daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and her performative-liberal daughter (Katherine Langford). Harlan’s only friend is his personal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas). When Harlan turns up dead, someone calls in the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), and we’re off.
Johnson writes and directs with speed and clarity; this thing ticks along beautifully. The dialogue, especially that which has little to do with the mystery and everything to do with establishing character, is sharp but juicy enough to push this into the arena of comedy. The character work is as crucial as the mystery plot, because Knives Out doesn’t, as you’d think, center on the grandly hypothesizing Benoit Blanc (though oh what fun Daniel Craig has with the accent, the intonations, the expansive wave of a cigar). It focuses on Marta, who has very real motives, rooted in current pain, to do what she does. Benoit finds her so trustworthy — for she literally cannot tell a lie, or else she’ll vomit — he enlists her as his Watson.
I guess I’m a Rian Johnson fan — I’ve seen four out of his five movies (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and this) and enjoyed them. They are truly ornaments to their respective genres, but they also share a certain regard for decency in surroundings that don’t always reward it. Johnson has, with Knives Out, made a liberal fable disguised as a murder mystery, a fable where the characters run the spectrum between Nazi and SJW, between skeptic and mystic, and like most of us are flawed and complicated. The nice thing about Marta, the movie’s one true hero, is that she’s drawn so skillfully as a selfless person of the type that’s usually incidental to someone else’s story. Harlan’s family, selfish assholes all, envision themselves as the center of their story — don’t we all, though? And Harlan himself, he gets to go out in the most triumphant way a man like him can. But he is the object of the story; Marta is the subject. Ana de Armas’ soft features and Margaret Keane eyes can’t hurt her credibility as an angel among demons. Marta is humble, smart, reflexively compassionate; we gravitate to her. Even the great Benoit Blanc seems a little full of himself.
Given how much the movie pits itself against Trumpism, explicitly in dialogue or subtextually, its success has been heartening (after its third weekend in theaters it was still in the top three). Knives Out speaks for kindness, intelligence, generosity, truth, and sharing the wealth. The way it’s been marketed is a little tricky, though — for one thing, it de-emphasizes Marta, and makes this look like the sort of white-people murder-mystery dinner that might put off the same viewers who would really dig where it actually ends up.On the other hand, it’s going to lure in a bunch of well-to-do white folks, attracted by the delectable promise of a genteel genre piece, only to spit full in their faces. Or vomit, as the case may be.
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