Saturday, April 4, 2020

Film Review: Knives Out

I went in to this movie very skeptical.  While I don't think that Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi is a TOTAL disaster, I know that Rian Johnson did immense damage to the entire franchise.  With that in mind, I went into his new movie Knives Out with a grain of salt.

I found that I was pleasantly surprised and entertained.

Knives Out is Johnson's attempt to spin an Agatha Christie style murder mystery.  The main character is Marta (Ana de Armas), the nurse to wealthy mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  Harlan is discovered one morning in his mansion with his throat cut.  Harlan's eclectic family are brought in for questioning.  And each character has a unique flavor like something out of Murder on the Orient Express:

Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis): Eldest daughter of Harlan who runs non-profits.
Richard (Don Johnson): Linda's right-wing, philandering husband.
Walt (Michael Shannon): Harlan's sheepish son who runs the publishing business.
Joni (Toni Collete): Daughter-in-law of a deceased son of Harlan whom he is supporting.
Ransom (Chris Evans): Son of Linda and Richard, smart but brutally mean
Meg (Katherine Langford): Left-wing daughter of Joni who has Harlan paying for her college.

The family dynamic is dysfunctional and as the course of the movie goes on, each one has potential motives.  All of this is brought under the eye of private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).  He is a persistent presences, sometimes silently observing, but often make sly remarks with his slow Southern drawl.  He enlists Marta's help not only because she was the closest to Harlan but because she has an odd quirk: she throws up every time she lies.  Together, they investigate the murder through all of its twists and turns.

Murder mysteries are notoriously difficult to do with excellence in the theater.  They are a dime-a-dozen on TV, so if you want your audience to cough up their hard earned cash, you had better offer them something that couldn't get from re-runs of CSI.  In this regard, Johnson has a few things going for him.

As a director, he has made the movie visually interesting.  The locations, the colors, and the camera angles have the polished touch of a seasoned director.  In the trailers, I thought the visuals were a little showy, but in the context of the film, they work very well.  There is a hyper-reality when you enter Harlan's world that is both comical and macabre.  The way Johnson uses the camera forces you to continually search the screen like you are the detective and this is your investigation.

He was also very smart in casting.  What could have simply been stunt casting is instead Johnson using these mostly seasoned actors to the best of their abilities.  Even when they are being despicable, they are incredibly fascinating to watch.  Ana de Armas brings a wonderful mixture of innocence and guilt but you cannot help being on her side throughout.  I have to admit I loved Craig's Benoit Blanc.  Again, from the trailers I thought that his character would be way over the top.  And to be sure, he feels less like a real human being but a Antebellum Poirot.  Despite this, I found myself waiting for each scene with him, wanting to be along as he made some new insight or discovery.

Where the movie falls short is the script.  Like The Last Jedi, there are some truly interesting and clever ideas here.  But the problem, like The Last Jedi, is that it is not nearly as clever as Johnson thinks it is.  Very early on in the story, Johnson throws a twist that I daresay few people will see coming.  However, the movie never capitalizes on the promise of this twist.  As it goes on, there are some truly hackneyed clue drops.  In fact, at right about the third act I was able to figure out the entire mystery.  That isn't a brag about my brains, but a critique of how easily Johnson played his hand, thinking he was so clever that no one would figure it out.  Most of the film plays out like a script for a made-for-TV film.

The film also gets needlessly bogged down in politics.  While both both political left and political right get satirized, it seemed horribly out of place and distracting.  Perhaps Johnson was playing with audience to see if their own political prejudices would poison them against certain characters, but I don't think that is the case.  Instead, it feels like desperate bait to feel relevant to today's political conversation.

Beyond that, Knives Out was very fun to watch and I and it held my interest all the way through.  And I can't believe I'm saying this, but I look forward to more mysteries to be solved by Benoit Blanc.

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