Knives Out (2019)
Written & Directed by Rian Johnson
Knives Out appears on the surface to be a modern take on the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, and on a certain level, it is precisely that. However. writer-director Rian Johnson has cleverly managed to subvert our expectations and tell the story he’s interested by dressing it up in the tropes and formulas in this genre. About a third of the way into the story, the audience is privy to the circumstances of the murder, and it seems as though the rest of the picture will be a cat & mouse game. The murderer will be continually trying to be one step ahead of the law and will likely get caught. But that’s still not the story Johnson is telling.
The victim is Harlan Thrombey, a wealthy crime novelist surrounded by a spoiled rotten family. His two children have created terrible families of their own, and everyone is ravenously stalking around the author’s estate & fortune. Tragedy strikes on the night of his 85th birthday, and the next morning Harlan is found with his throat slit a room upstairs. The police want to rule it a suicide, the cut was uninterrupted, but someone suspects foul play. Cue Detective Benoit Blanc, a famous Southern sleuth who was sent a newspaper clipping and stack of money from an anonymous source. The police re-question the family out of courtesy for Blanc, who begins forming his own angle on the death of Harlan Thrombey.
Rian Johnson isn’t afraid to set this story amid our current political climate. One grandson is an alt-righter, spending most of his time on his phone engaged in trolling. Harlan’s granddaughter is a college student deep in leftist thought. The children of Mr. Thrombey are wealthy and, while they may think there are stark differences between them, are ultimately all spoiled and over-privileged snots. Harlan’s nurse, Marta, is the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, and this citizenship status activates her greatest fears when she becomes involved in the murder investigation. These may not seem crucial to the case, but a speech given by the worst of them all, Ransom, underlines just how much Marta’s race and citizenship shape the way she’s seen by the Thrombeys.
The film is self-aware of its roots, with Benoit Blanc being the sort of detective Agatha Christie would have placed in the middle of her stories. He’s eccentric and seemingly dim, also a reference to Columbo, when he was ahead of everybody from the start. One character mentions that Harlan lived in a giant Clue board, and the characters are dressed in lots of primary colors evoking the cast of that film & game (Mr. Green, Ms. Scarlet, etc.).
The cast is obviously enjoying themselves, playing larger than life characters who are intended to chew up the scenery. Jamie Lee Curtis is pitch-perfect as the eldest child who has grown tired of her siblings and her father’s games. Chris Evans, as Ransom takes some interest, turns as a character, swinging back and forth on whose side he’s actually on. Toni Colette is the daughter-in-law trying to get her health brand Flam off the ground and is my favorite character in the picture. On the investigation side, you have reliable and nuanced performances from Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan, and of course, Daniel Craig. I felt the two younger grandchildren didn’t have much to add to the story and were the blandest, uninteresting characters in the picture.
The star of the show is Ana de Armas as Marta, who gives her best performance yet. I loved her as Joi in Blade Runner 2049, and she shows her strength in carrying a picture. The trailers may lead you to believe this is Daniel Craig’s film, but it is most certainly Ms. de Armas’. She conveys deep levels of emotion and can match the exaggerated tone of the murder mystery with her character’s very real-world plight of remaining under the radar as what is dis-tastefully referred to by one of the Thrombeys; as an “anchor baby.” The finale of this picture is some crowd-pleasing Schadenfreude for seeing the downtrodden beat the privileged.
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