Friday, November 29, 2019
Whodunnit Watch: Knives Out (2019)
Format: Alamo S. Lamar
I have a feeling Rian Johnson is going to be, with this movie, one of those directors twitter decides they need to prove they think is overrated. He hasn't made that many movies, seems pretty lucky to have done what he's been able to do (if you ignore how he scraped to get Brick made), and hasn't ever delivered exactly what people are expecting when they show up at the theater - up to and including The Last Jedi.
With the trailer for Knives Out, we're given a glimpse of a type of movie that's been out of vogue for forty years minus the recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which was a fun watch - but as I understand it, not a patch on the 1970's version. As I said - the Agatha Christie type murder mystery has mostly gone away in favor of the CGI'd Sherlock Holmes films, serial killer hunts and CSI type investigations. Quirky detectives have found their way to television - mostly on the BBC. Or in weekly, cozy-mystery type shows like Monk or whatever.
But the detective showing up with a room full of suspects? We don't get too many of those these days on the big screen. Which is a shame, because those epic unspooling of details that were there all along as, at last, the finger is pointed? That can be terrific stuff (see: The Thin Man films).
The film centers on the death of a family patriarch and mystery writer who is, the morning after his 85th birthday, found dead with his neck slashed with a knife - which is ruled a suicide due, mostly, to the fact that no one had a motive (it seems) and no one seemed to have been upstairs with the victim.
Rather than spend tons of money on CGI and other modern movie options, Johnson's film has invested in and has the good fortune of featuring a star-studded cast of names both gigantic and culty. For god's sake, our victim - seen quite a bit, but mostly in flashback - is Christopher Plummer, who is still doing great work. Chris Evans plays a rogueish grandson, Jamie Lee Curtis - Evans' mother and Plummer's daughter, who is possibly the most stable of all the family. Don Johnson is Curtis' MAGA supporting husband. Michael Shannon plays another son and publisher of his father's large library of mystery novels but who has little control and is mostly a functionary. Riki Lindhome - someone I normally think of as a solid comedian, plays it mostly straight as Shannon's brittle wife and mother of their Alt-Right shit of a son. Toni Collette is the widow of a deceased child (and, as always, amazing).
The detective enters, paid in cash by an anonymous source - Daniel Craig doing a southern-fried-by-way-of-Louisiana accent as Benoit Blanc. Along with two police detectives, Blanc interviews the family and the staff (Ana de Armas, in particular, is pretty stellar). And, immediately, the threads begin to unravel. Motives come to light, and Blanc is on the case, sorting out what, exactly, happened.
I don't want to spend too much time on individual efforts as we'd be here all day. In my opinion, the cast was firing on all cylinders - up to and including K Callan (Lois & Clark), as Plummer's still living and impossibly old mother. But I will say - it's always terrific to see Jamie Lee Curtis digging into a role.
The movie is beautifully shot, mostly inside a Massachusetts mansion - set decorated to be a museum of oddities and personal effects both from research from the novels written by Plummer's character and inspired by them. But the palette and effect are fantastic, complete with a sense of geography necessary to the film.
In some delightful ways, the movie plays with genre expectations to the point where I was absolutely startled and thrown off more than once as Johnson broke the expected cadence, but he's really just texturing the familiar way these movies sometimes work. And, as I hate to spoil the movie, building in additional architecture that makes for interesting challenges to the viewer trying to solve the murder alongside Blanc, creating some terrific tension.
As I said - this sort of movie hasn't been made much of late. We expect our murder mysteries served up a bit more like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - how else do we take them seriously if the movie does not, itself, take the events and fates of the victims all that seriously? How can we believe a person is a master detective if they do not display a tortured past that can inform their unique insight?
In 2019, simply dropping a detective into a murder scenario and having them solve it without a B plot of resolving personal demons (thanks, Thomas Harris!) is almost unthinkable. And I imagine *not* having the now predictable tropes as part of the movie will feel very strange indeed to a lot of movie go-ers. But, I hope that's not our only option for how mystery stories can be told (I'm not exactly one for Hallmark mysteries, but they've built a whole network out of *not* having grimdark as the only operating speed).
What Johnson made was a throwback to something else, and - you know - it's a fun murder mystery movie. There's some real world stuff baked in there, and you can deal with it as you like, but I kinda like that I can tell pretty much anyone this one might be a good movie to check out. But I think people are going to say he isn't being "serious" enough, or dark enough or whatever criteria they use to make sure they know they're watching an important film or a movie made the right way. Look, this is a popcorn movie and that's what it wants to be. And at that - it's doing a pretty terrific job.
And, honestly, the Thanksgiving weekend crowds can be a nightmare at the Alamo as it's a lot of visiting people and whatnot, and (a) there was no demographic for this movie - I saw a wide range of ages, etc... and (b) everyone shut the hell up for the duration. People were straight up *into it*. And that ain't bad.
*Signal Watch readers will know him as The Emperor of the Galaxy from Star Crash.