Knives Out (2019, Rian Johnson)

Knives Out is very successful, very neat riff on the Agatha Christie-esque genre of mystery stories, specifically the limited cast, the intricate death, the “gentleman detective.” Out’s gentleman detective is Daniel Craig, who plays his French-named character as a Southern Gentleman with aplomb. He’s always delightful, even though he’s—intentionally—not particularly good at the investigating, rather trying to figure out where the truth will reveal itself and meet it there. Nice Gravity’s Rainbow reference, though writer and director Johnson’s joke about people not actually reading it… well, there’s an insight ceiling. Out does a pretty good job not bumping it while covering a range of precarious topics throughout, with the Pynchon cop out probably being the closest call.

The lead in the film is instead Ana de Armas, nurse and confidant to recently deceased (apparently by suicide) Christopher Plummer. Plummer’s a millionaire mystery novel writer who supports his greedy family members, reigning from an intentionally gothic house with the occasional physical gimmicks related to his mystery novels. The house set is a lot of fun. When the film finally leaves for a sustained period (instead of just quick asides to remind de Armas has a real life away), it loses a bit of its personality. Especially when it will just turn around and head back, reining in its expanse at the end of the second act just to use the house again in the third. Only once it returns, it’s already shown what’s behind the curtain–Johnson does a fine job establishing the actual suspects from the potential ones and gives the audience enough information to at least guess the perpetrator if not the motive.

It’s a good script. Even during the finale, which goes on a little too long, all of Johnson’s instincts and twists are good, there’s just too much material in between them. Some of it’s Craig mugging but Johnson’s also really careful never to let him go too far. The film’s got a very specific tone, very specific narrative distance—it’s got to encompass a lot around de Armas—Johnson and his crew do an excellent job with it. Steve Yedlin’s photography, Bob Ducsay’s editing, Nathan Johnson’s music. All works out.

No small thanks to de Armas, obviously, who’s able to do a lot in this spotlight, including entirely, exquisitely humanize Plummer. It isn’t until their big scene together Plummer really gets to act; until then, opposite the family, it’s all for motive setup. With de Armas, Plummer gets real personality, which resonates throughout the film.

The first act’s a series of flashbacks and flash arounds, establishing the last night of Plummer’s life, with the various family members and suspects—Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette—incriminating themselves and others and getting annoyed with cop LaKeith Stanfield’s repeated interrogations. Stanfield’s the straight man, Noah Segan’s his numbskull sidekick, Craig’s the gentleman detective. Johnson has a great handle on the genre norms and nimbly adapts some of them.

Good performances all around, though Out is really de Armas, Plummer, and Craig’s movie. Of the supporting cast–well, the family (Stanfield’s great but he’s de facto third tier)—Collette and Shannon are the best. Curtis and Johnson are both fine, they just don’t have the same opportunities. As the black sheep and prime suspect (of sorts), Chris Evans is good (his amazing sweater, hiding Avengers guns, is amazing) and maybe even better than I was expecting given the part, but he doesn’t have the spark the big three exhibit.

Though he also doesn’t have Johnson showcasing him the way de Armas, Plummer, and Craig get the spotlight. They all transfix, the film riding on them—which just makes de Armas more and more impressive as the film moves along.

Knives Out is good. Just about ten minutes too long.

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