Knives Out (2019)


Where does one go after doing a Star Wars movie?  I will admit that, unless it's George Lucas or J. J. Abrams, the Star Wars series is a bit of a curse.  Even Lucas removed himself from officially directing anything for over two decades after the first Star Wars film, while Irving Kirshner only managed two more feature films and Richard Marquand only a handful before his death.  Gareth Edwards, the director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, has not done anything since, and Ron Howard, like Kirshner before him, is near the tail end of his career.  

That brings us to Rian Johnson.  I was excited about The Last Jedi because of Johnson's previous film Looper, which dealt realistically with aspects of time travel - especially when used by organized crime.  He had a couple of other well-regarded films before that one, but he couldn't really be considered a household name.  One problem with a lot of the big, cinematic universe films has been that studios have taken independent directors, like Gareth Edwards, and suddenly thrown them into making big-budget films without giving them the chance to build up experience.  Sam Raimi, for instance, brought in a ton of money with the first Spider-Man trilogy, but prior to that worked decades at building a reputation and honing his craft.

That said, Edwards did a great job on Rogue One - he already had some experience making a big-budget film with the first proper American version of Godzilla - and Johnson did a great job with The Last Jedi as well.  Unfortunately, not everyone thought so, and those that had a differing opinion made their voices loud and clear, sometimes voicing legitimate concerns and other times just seemingly upset that some of the characters had extra melanin or two X chromosomes.  Johnson, for his part, handled the criticism with the same maturity as many of his detractors, choosing to call them names instead of defending the film and his choices when writing it.  The Last Jedi was far from the woke pander-fest that it was made out to be, but Johnson didn't do himself any favors. 

So, that brings us to Knives Out.  This is a return to the mystery genre for him, something he explored in his first movie, Brick.   It centers around the death of mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found, apparently having slit his own throat, by his maid Fran (Edi Patterson) the day after his birthday party.  The death has brought in an actual private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who received an anonymous envelope with a cash payment to take up the case.  When it is revealed that Thrombey decided to leave his fortune to his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) the entire family is up in arms, suddenly turning on her and demanding she renounce the inheritance.  Harlan's grandson Ransom (Chris Evans), overjoyed at his family's distress, tries to befriend Marta in a scheme to get her to keep the inheritance for his cut of the money.  It turns out that the answer to the mystery lies with her, and it's not going to stay with her - nor is her lunch if she tries to conceal the truth. 

There are two things one must do to enjoy this movie: get through the first 20 minutes, and at some point just accept that James Bond is talking like Foghorn Leghorn.  Supposedly Craig based his "Southern" accent on historian Shelby Foote, and maybe this is just punishment for how we mess up English accents by throwing them all in a pot and hoping something vaguely British floats to the top.  If that's the case, good on him, but at about 30 minutes in it just becomes one more strange aspect of the movie, as the twists and turns of Knives Out takes justifies the sacrifice.  

I'm surprised it works so well, as it feels at times like Johnson can't figure out if he wants to be Wes Anderson or an honorary Coen brother.  In some ways it feels like a mashup of the two, especially with Marta's quirk of vomiting when she lies and Trooper Wagner's (Noah Segan) obsession with Thrombey's novels, Benoit Blanc's reputation and mysteries in general.  Chris Evans is great in his slimy little roll, while veterans Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer all do their best to carry things along. 

The other thing that becomes apparent is that Rian Johnson is one to hold a grudge.  Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell), the son of Harlan's younger son Walter (Michael Shannon), is described as an "alt-right troll" who is constantly on his phone posting memes.  His polar opposite is Meg (Katherine Langford), the daughter of a deceased son of the family whose mother Joni (Toni Collette) runs a new-age health company.  Meg seems to be perpetually taking social justice classes on her grandfather's dime, and goes out of her way to seem compassionate to Marta.  While there is a small place for Meg, particularly being unable to adhere to her beliefs when money comes into question, Jacob is simply in the movie to take one more dig at those who were not happy with The Last Jedi.  

Jacob and Meg obviously are there to also score political points, but they are not the only characters used in this manner.  That is where the biggest flaw in an otherwise well-crafted movie lies.  Marta's mother (Marlene Forte) is an undocumented immigrant, and the question of President Donald Trump's immigration policies comes up for debate, and of course the family patronizingly drags Marta into it.  It is one of many clumsy attempts to try to equate the Thrombeys with Trump's America, and now that it is obvious that he is going to be a one-term President, this is an aspect of the movie that will make it seem out of place even before the decade is over, much less 20 years from now.  It is not a situation like the Cold War where the world is still suffering aftereffects three decades after its end.  Trump will barely turn out to be a blip in history, and the politics in Knives Out will feel as alien as a Spiro Agnew joke.  It also doesn't help that I can't tell if it's pandering to the left wing or a serious attempt to show both sides as a bunch of hypocrites.  

What is hopeful is that Daniel Craig works on that accent, maybe even hamming it up more and just enjoying the heck out of being Benoit Blanc,, as a sequel (minus the Thrombey family) is on its way.  If Johnson avoids politics and finally gets over his internet lambasting it's possible that the second will be even better, as his writing is sharp and he is good with handling plot twists and not making them as obvious as M. Night Shyamalan.  I am glad that, despite the fallout, the Star Wars curse hasn't hit him as hard.  Even if we don't get the trilogy in that series he was going to direct, a strong second Benoit Blanc movie could set him up with a loyal audience in a way that the galaxy far, far away never could.

Knives Out (2019)
Time: 130 minutes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer
Director: Rian Johnson

 

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