Thursday, November 28, 2019

Review: Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out (2019)

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material

Score: 5 out of 5

With an all-star cast, a big cast of screwed-up characters, a delightful and dark sense of humor, a story filled with twists and turns, some incisive social commentary, and a writer/director who's never more comfortable than when he's working with this kind of movie, Knives Out is one of the best films of 2019. An affectionate sendup of the whodunits of Agatha Christie and writers like her that doubles as an excellent example in its own right, this film takes the cozy, upper-crust settings of many such works and uses it in service of a satire of the neuroses and unearned privilege of the one percent, and has as much fun as it can with its sprawling cast and gorgeous mansion setting along the way. It's a film where, even knowing beforehand that it went off in some unusual directions early on, still found new ways to surprise me all the way to the very end. We need more films like this going to theaters rather than just getting shunted off to streaming services.

At the heart of the film, we start with the death, apparently by suicide, of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling mystery novelist with a big, screwed-up family. Famed private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by a mysterious benefactor to come to the house and investigate, somebody suspecting that Thrombey's death was, in fact, murder -- and when he starts interviewing Harlan's family and servants and investigating the crime scene, he immediately susses out that things don't add up. Multiple people had motive for wanting to kill Harlan -- his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) wanted to keep his infidelity secret after Harlan found out, his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) found out that Harlan was going to fire him from his job running Harlan's publishing company, his "lifestyle guru" daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) found out that Harlan was going to cut off her allowance, and finally, his playboy grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) found out that Harlan was cutting him out of his will -- but the person that Benoit has as his lead suspect, Harlan's nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), did not have an obvious motive. Nothing is as it seems, and the case turns out to go far deeper, and weirder, than anyone could imagine.

Writer/director Rian Johnson made his name with these sorts of slightly offbeat "thinking man's" thrillers, often with unusual premises and stories filled with twists and turns. With Brick, he did a throwback to '40s film noir reimagined as a teen drama, while with Looper, he did the same with the more deliberately paced science fiction films of the '70s. (I actually think that him applying his usual style to Star Wars may have been a big part of why The Last Jedi received such a backlash from a vocal subset of the fandom, but that's neither here nor there.) Here, he's homaging movies like Gosford Park and Clue and the novels of Agatha Christie, lighthearted murder mysteries in which the sex and violence is downplayed in favor of comic relief and sendup of the communities that they take place in. And oh, does Johnson send this family up. He portrays the Thrombeys as every awful stereotype of the idle rich, a group of fantastically dressed, self-serving assholes who were either born and raised in the lap of luxury or married into such and have deluded themselves into thinking that they earned all their wealth through their own hard work, even though a) their riches would never have been possible without Harlan's generous loans to his family, and b) they describe the fortune Harlan made as their "birthright". Some, like Richard, Donna, and Donna's son Jacob, are presented as conservatives, while others, like Joni and her daughter Meg, are portrayed as liberals, but what they all have in common is how utterly blind they are to their own privilege. As it turns out, the only ones who recognized this were Harlan himself and the killer, and without spoiling anything, Harlan's attempts to light a fire under his family's collective ass left them all with no shortage of reasons for wanting to kill him. The killer's big speech at the end detailing their motive illustrated a case of affluenza run amok, of somebody who thought that they could not only get away with anything but deserved to do so, in such a manner that (perhaps unintentionally) called to mind one specific rich and famous person in particular. And when you add on the fact that the nurse Marta, who is arguably the only decent person in this household and winds up serving as the protagonist, is very explicitly Latina and the daughter of an undocumented immigrant (the film even makes a running gag out of the fact that none of the Thrombeys bothered to learn what country she's from), the Thrombey's privilege and their reaction to any threats to it takes on a whole new level of subtext, especially given the manner in which two of the film's biggest twists place Marta right at the center of them. The film is unequivocal: these people all suck, and deserve to be knocked down a peg or several as they get put through all manner of humiliations, the death of their patriarch being just the spark. It played in a manner very similarly to Ready or Not, but while that film kept it to the subtext, here it was the outright text, with the subtext beneath it being even more incisive.

And thanks to a great cast, I had a blast watching all of that unfold. The Thrombeys all fall into one of two categories: scumbags who are open about it, and scumbags who know how to lie about it. Even the ones who appear sympathetic at first, like Meg, eventually reveal themselves to be no better than the rest of their family, and arguably even worse given their backhanded behavior. The all-star cast assembled to play them were all relishing these roles as people who, while not outright evil save for the actual culprit, are still truly terrible wastes of flesh. While a few of them felt underused, even the more underwritten ones were still immediately captivating and loathsome. Daniel Craig, meanwhile, plays Benoit Blanc as a larger-than-life caricature who, in the hands of a lesser actor, could've easily slid into camp and become insufferable; at least one other character accurately compares his thick Southern accent to a Foghorn Leghorn impression. However, as a self-conscious throwback to "world's greatest detective" characters like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, Craig is perfect in the part, a man who, even when all the pieces seem aligned, still notices something that he can't quite place his finger on. It's Ana de Armas, however, who anchors the film. While the ads all focused on Craig, it's de Armas' Marta who turns out to be the true main character, a working-class nurse who was genuinely close with Harlan, who considered her as much a part of the family as his flesh and blood (and arguably more so). Without spoiling anything, she is heartbroken over the role she accidentally played in Harlan's death, and finds herself in over her head as Harlan's death causes his family to start tearing itself apart. In a just world, this would be de Armas' breakthrough role, proving that she can play a smart, capable, and sympathetic heroine who serves as this film's moral and thematic center.

It's also just a really fun film to watch. Rian Johnson has always had a gift for understated visual style, and here, he deploys it in service of dropping the viewer into the heart of a cozy mansion and picturesque New England town. The tone is an overtly comedic one; instead of hard-boiled darkness and grit, this film prefers to shine a spotlight on the family's dysfunction and mine that for humor, whether it's with the family's political arguments or how they turn into ravenous monsters once their easy money is threatened. As somebody who admittedly comes from some wealth, the jokes hit pretty close to home, too. I was reminded of some of my own family members while watching this, Johnson making me feel as though I was at a family gathering -- but this time, from the outside looking in, showing just how ridiculous everything actually is. He does shoot a few more exciting and intense scenes, like the discovery of a person tied up in a dark room or a very low-speed car chase that's nonetheless shot like The Fast and the Furious, but this is as much a comedy as it is a thriller, and it is a damn funny one that sticks with you. Let's just say, I expect to see the final shot of this film to become a fixture of memes for a while to come.

The Bottom Line

An amazing ride from start to finish, Knives Out weaves a twisting whodunit story loaded with subtext while making me laugh my ass off at the same time. Truly a near-perfect movie for a holiday of family gatherings.

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