08 December 2019

First Impressions: Knives Out

Back in January I was looking forward to Knives Out (2019) as some kind of Rian Johnson Daniel Craig murder mystery whodunnit that would succeed because Johnson could dig into the tropes and come up with something interesting. What's amazing is that I actually said that these movies are either contrived or give themselves away too early. What then might we say about this one that totally blows its mystery within the first hour and then continues to be compelling? SPOILERS forever as we talk about Knives Out!

Sitting in the Game of Thrones Interrogation Chair

Like most folks I first found respect for Rian Johnson from Looper (2012), which was such a cool idea with some really inspired casting and genuinely creative uses of the premise, if you are able to ignore some time travel nonsense (the film even encourages us to just go along for the ride at one point). It was enough of a fresh sci-fi that I was locked in and excited about his take on The Last Jedi (2017).

And okay, I often feel like the only person on the planet who feels this way, but The Last Jedi was amazing. Every day it feels more like the New Star Wars Trilogy was completely made up on the fly and that's just not a good thing. I love that Rian Johnson decided to blow up the whole thing as well as mess with every idea at the core of Star Wars itself. It's amazing. Weirdly, not many people liked him messing with childhoods (or giving women positions of authority), but I love how he clearly sees terrible characters like Po Dameron as worthless as they are and acknowledges Luke not as a godly chosen hero but a whiny brat from Tatooine.

Sorry, off topic here. But after that whole debacle it's great to see Johnson clear his palette with this original zany tale that works like a somehow worse version of The Royal Tenenbaums (2003) with a brilliant immigration subtext. Also a murder mystery that's not exactly obvious, but plays its hand very early, but in doing so finds a more ingenious way to keep its momentum going. Let's start with the plot.

Christopher Plummer is an aging author and executor of a publishing empire with an assortment of terrible children and in-laws who are all looking for a piece of the pie. A big theme here is what it takes to truly become self-made or just launching oneself from a position of money and privilege. It may be the first of quite a few digs at Trump, but hey, that's what every possible piece of culture is now.

Beyond the titular family head is a truly amazing cast of characters. Jamie Lee Curtis is arguably the only one semi-admirable. Her husband, Don Johnson is a cheating piece of shit with the sorts of veiled racist rhetoric against immigrants that fuels most of the Republican Party. Michael Shannon is an awkward, creepy follower in his dad's footsteps. His son is not explicitly shown, but told to be a Nazi troll, a sly dig at the young white men in today's society turned by the more selfish and racist parts of the internet. On the other side of the spectrum is a "snowflake" daughter and her mother, Toni Collette, double dipping generous funds to pay for what seems like a never-ending school. Rian Johnson shows us both sides of today's hypocritical political society in very subtle ways. Finally there's Chris Evans as Jamie Lee Curtis' son, who seems like an aggressive piece of shit without much real direction in life.

LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and some other white guy round out the non-family cast, and they're all great. Each cog works in this machine to spit out a pretty entertaining movie. Ana de Armas is revealed early on as the accidental killer of Chris Plummer, but she's ironically the only one without motivation and it was totally an accident! Or was it! There are plenty of double crosses and twists that are largely earned, although it does leave us with a lot of talking and last minute reveals, mostly by Daniel Craig, who does his best Logan Lucky (2017) southern accent. It's actually becoming a nice niche for him that largely works just because it's the farthest possible from James Bond.

It is entertaining to watch Bond vs. Captain America for much of the latter part of the film. Chris Evans also plays heavily against the type he's generated in recent flicks, but is really a sleezebag remisicent of earlier roles in Sunshine (2007), Not Another Teen Movie (2001), and The Losers (2010). Remember him in Push (2009)? No one saw Push. I liked Push. Anyway, through a bunch of twists and turns Chris Evans really did the poisoning, or at least tried to, and was going to set up Ana de Armas, but because she is good and awesome at life and everything he got his comeuppance. It's very satisfying and surprising in ways that are both befitting of the genre and intriguing within the genre. It all just works.

The stages of the actual murder involve a cheeky sequence where Ana de Armas ingeniously needs to cover her own tracks (quite literally) as Daniel Craig enlists her to solve her own crime, her being the least suspicious. This is then reversed as she suddenly becomes the most likely when she is revealed as the sole inheritor of Christopher Plummer's will. It all drips with irony that keeps us engaged until the end.

As I mentioned, there is also this political undercurrent here. Ana de Armas is worried that her mother will get deported if she brings on a lot of attention. The attitudes of the family are largely that they are privileged and deserve what's rightfully theirs and care not for this intrusive immigrant swooping in and stealing what's theirs, even if she earned it. It's full of a lot of lip service for both the right wing and left wing members of the family that show their true colors when the chips are down. There's a few legendary moments - from Michael Shannon promising Ana de Armas the considerable resources of the family, then she asserts that those resources are now hers. Chris Evans demands their ancestral heritage, but Daniel Craig rightly points out that they purchased this house in the 80s. It's all on the nose, but still delightful.

The film looks great, is filled with fantastic actors on limited sets and budgets. It is certainly heavy on the dialogue and monologues, but this is a murder mystery centered around a slain mystery novelist. You know what you're getting into. The characters all have their own distinct motivations and quirks without becoming caricatures. It's everything you could want right now.

Most importantly, it's clever. That's one common thread I feel is missing from most films these days. I just watched Hobbs & Shaw (2019), which may inspire its own DVD-based post soon, but most big blockbusters just don't feel iconic or clever any more. They're full of missed opportunities to be great. It's so rare to have a mainstream movie like this full of compelling dialogue, layers of irony, interesting characters and relationships that bounce off each other. It's very well done and worth watching.

Did you see Knives Out yet? Or just watching Frozen II (2019)?

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