“Knives Out” is Old Style with New Attitude

“Knives Out” is Old Style with New Attitude

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“Knives Out” begins like any typical murder mystery. There’s a body, a detective and a bunch of suspects, all cooped up in a remote location. However, Rian Johnson has brilliantly stacked one mystery on top of another. Helming this film as he has all his other films, as writer and director, he makes you think you know what’s happened. You might think you’ve figured it out. Even when the film has given you what you think you need, there’s still more to reveal. Seldom does a movie come along that throws you for a loop until the very last frame and this film does that to a tee.  It is part homage to Agatha Christie, especially “Murder on the Orient Express” and part a subversive take on genre.

Knives Out (2019 Movie) Official Trailer — Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis

With any great mystery, there are hints in the image and themes to always be looking out for.  The film begins with dogs running and barking from a grand house on a large plot of land toward the surrounding fence, an image that becomes important to the larger plot.  Dogs can sense which people are untrustworthy, and which are pure of heart. The film takes place almost entirely at said house, which is decorated in vintage theatre posters, dolls and masquerade masks.  Everybody has secrets and these characters are no different and while hiding those secrets they may also use each other to achieve their goal.

When famous mystery author and patriarch of a dysfunctional but well to do family, the Drysdale’s, is found dead with his throat slit in an apparent suicide an eccentric and motivated private investigator, Benoit Blanc, enters the family’s lives with suspicions of “foul play.” What follows is an exciting and new take on what could have been a by the numbers, trope filled mystery thriller if in lesser hands. But thankfully,  Rian Johnson is someone who, for better or worse, is never afraid to test the limits of genre. 

The cinematography lays this film out like an Agatha Christie story. A noire sensibility inside of a cramped space with nowhere to hide, like the Orient Express. Its purpose is to make you feel comfort, as if you are familiar with this story. But as the writing brings you on a journey full of twists and turns you don’t know where to look or what to think and you are sprung into what can only be summed up as a “Rian Johnson Whodunnit.”

Johnson’s career is somewhat based in subversion of tropes.  “The Last Jedi” is in the same boat but unfortunately its use of subversion is more in line with expecting one thing and receiving the most obvious turn to conflict. For example, a waiter is about to pour a glass of wine. “The Last Jedi” is like if that waiter spills the wine beside the glass and then points it and winks at you (an analogy inspired by YouTube’s RedLetterMedia’s video “The Wine Tasting.”)  “Knives Out” is like the waiter is actually tied up behind the restaurant and the person in uniform is disguised so as to poison the wine but on the way to pour it he is bumped and spills it only for it to be revealed that the person who bumped the disguised waiter was quietly wise to the scheme all along. It is not subversion for subversions sake, but rather to craft an original story in a familiar setting. Like satire is used to point a finger at the dark and twisted and make it looks ridiculous and foolish, “Knives Out” points its finger at the mystery genre and says, “There’s still new ways to approach you.”

It is a story very simply told.  All the viewer has to do is go along for the ride as the film is in very competent and confident hands. It’s classic cinema with a new feeling, which is deeply reflected in the film’s tone. It is like an old Hollywood noir but with very current references to remind you this story takes place in modern day 2019. As with many of the other great films this year such as “Joker” and “Parasite” there is a class disparity and division that plays into the plot very well and while avoiding preachiness. 

There’s very little that I didn’t like about this film because it is honestly very well done and a craft of cinema. Any grievances I do have towards it are nitpicks such as maybe wanting to know a bit more about one or two characters or at least more understanding into them. But I was leaned into the film the whole time as it lured me along a remarkably entertaining journey.  Sometimes you see a review smacked on the screen during a trailer describing the film as edge of your seat exciting!  But I was on the edge of my seat, eyes locked in, hand on my chin trying to investigate as Craig’s character is.

It was also refreshing to see Daniel Craig out of the Bond role and into something he can really dig his teeth into and he ate up this investigator role. He’s a renowned “gentleman sleuth” private investigator with a molasses southern brogue. He is quite aptly referred to as “CSI: KFC” by Chris Evans’ character, Ransom. Yes, his name is Ransom -- well his middle name is.  Another welcome change of pace for an actor who’s mostly been known for one role fore past decade plus. In this role, Evans is allowed to stretch his comedy muscles as well as play someone with a bit less clean cut morality than Steve Rogers.

While these two actors are some standouts there is a wildly talented ensemble at play having the time of their lives in their roles.  With names like Toni Colette, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, and Christopher Plummer there is no lack of talent. The humor is often darkly funny and the characters, except for maybe a couple, are not the most moral people allowing each actor to have their individual and collective fun.  

“Knives Out” delivered something fresh, original and completely confident which is what makes for an entertaining and thought provoking movie.  Rian Johnson has been controversial in the past, but “Knives Out” is truly enjoyable and I think a crowd pleaser. At the screening there was a moment when the audience cheered for a character.  A cheer is usually heard when a character we already know in a property we’re familiar with does something in service of the fans or does something epic or cathartic. It’s seldom seen in an original movie with characters we met maybe an hour or so ago.  I highly recommend this film, and with a PG-13 rating, I say take the family out (except for the small kids), and enjoy this bound-to-be classic.

Contributed by: David Ginsburg

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