Published on December 10th, 2019 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Director Rian Johnson throws down an Agatha Christie-inpired murder mystery with a stellar cast of heavy-weights from Captain America to James Bond and Laurie Strode.
I love murder mystery. So much in fact, I almost like the movie Clue (1985) even though it was based on a board game. You heard me, a board game. And I say ‘almost’ because the movie is quite campy and silly. It’s a perfect, simple premise — strangers trapped in a secluded mansion on a stormy night, a dead body and a killer hiding among them — but the delivery is not very serious, and the exercise of playing along feels like a lame birthday game that your mom planned. At the other end of the spectrum is the likes of Shutter Island (2010), another sequestered location, this time an isolated prison with dark secrets. I love Shutter Island because it’s smart, measured and beautifully shot, but it’s also a little dark and heavy.
Enter writer/director Rian Johnson and his latest feature, Knives Out. The 45-year-old writer/director known for Looper (2012) and The Last Jedi (2017) surprised the hell out of me by making a whodunit that not only looks as cool as the seductive trailer, but brings a genre as old as Hollywood itself back into the spotlight.
In less than two minutes, we discover wealthy patriarch and successful mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey, has committed suicide. As a formality, the entire family — every single eccentric, every useless one of them — are re-interviewed by police, each repeating their version of events on the evening in question. And so we see the evening of the murder, Thrombey’s birthday party, six times, and each version is slightly different. Yes, it was definitely suicide, but with a will reading worth millions just days away, being thorough is being responsible. With the guidance of world-renowned investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the game is afoot.
At this point, I really want to lionize the cleverness of clues and audience cues. Knives Out succeeds spectacularly because of two basic ingredients, the first of which is the presentation of information and evidence on screen. Like a chess game on the clock, pieces moving, you can race against the game itself to reach the correct conclusion — but it’s tricky. As one character insists to another, You must tell the truth in this order! the games within games begin. So pay attention to every conversation and each remark because it’s all there (even the Gordon Lightfoot song Sundown contains lyrics that foreshadows the actions of characters in that scene). The movie does an excellent job of only planting things that pay off later. The gratification of the ending is seeing all the pieces come together sensibly with a satisfaction that reminded me of The Usual Suspects (1995).
The second principle of success is the ensemble cast. It seems like everyone in this movie is a serious heavy hitter, with the exception of Ana de Armas. Armas plays the critical role of Harlan’s nurse and confidant, and I was afraid she would be trampled by the seasoned actors around her. She stands out as an equal among giants. What propels the movie beyond the average and into Agatha Christie territory is the fact that the cast each played their part to the extent that was needed by the movie as opposed to the need of their ego. The supreme talents of Jami Lee Curtis and Toni Collette almost seem undervalued here, but then again, neither are the heroine of the movie.
My complaints of the movie are limited. I like Daniel Craig as much as the next Bond fan, but why he sounds like Foghorn Leghorn in this is beyond me. He is humorous and compelling to watch, but he’s no Don Johnson. Don plays a very unlikeable but funny as hell character that reminded me of his turn in Django Unchained (2012), but switching parts between him and Craig might have been a wise choice.
At a run time of 2 hours 5 minutes, I was concerned that the pacing would lull and make me nod off in my giant reclining leather chair. I also wondered if I would be observant enough to recognize three distinct acts in the structure to assure myself that the story was moving along. I checked my watch twice during the film and found that act one, two and three were each 43 minutes, almost to the second. The movie reaches small milestones in perfect timing to cumulate towards an ending that did not feel like two hours. Like almost all the M. Night Shyamalan movies, Knives Out works best on a first viewing where the twists, turns, reveals and surprises pack their most effective punch. While I will definitely watch this again down the road on blu ray, I know it won’t be as exciting as that first thrilling ride.
Crime solving detective movies are a genre as old as movies themselves (the Hollywood landscape is littered with attempts and achievements), but rarely does one succeed as well as Knives Out. It was neither Clue nor Shutter Island, but like Goldilocks and her porridge, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that mixing the bowl that’s too hot with the bowl that’s too cold makes a perfect blend and twice what you would get from that stupid bowl in the middle. If Knives Out isn’t a 10/10, it’s as close as your mood will allow when you watch it.