Review: Knives Out

At this late date there’s little originality to be squeezed from the rind of the classic drawing room murder mystery epitomized by the work of Agatha Christie. Personally, I’ve always found the genre, with its strictly structured setups, carefully dropped red herrings, and over-determined reveals, unsatisfying since with each new story there are necessarily diminishing returns in terms of excitement. More to the point, the structures and sentiments required by the genre leech the stories of anything identifiable. The murder and subsequent investigation might as well be happening in Middle Earth.

The only thing you can do with the genre at this point is make fun of it, and certainly with Knives Out Rian Johnson means to parody not only the form but the cinematic formalism inherent in famous movie adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express, the obvious inspiration for the story here. However, as with Christie’s carefully wrought puzzles, Johnson’s unraveling of the entertainment aspects of these mysteries is so self-referential as to render the whole enterprise more academic than amusing.

Filled to the brim with clever star turns, the movie’s status as a meta production overshadows whatever entertainment particulars it offers, but generally speaking the jokes are pretty good. Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a very successful mystery writer who dies one evening at his palatial home, presumably by his own hand, which cut his own throat. Still, the police (Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan) are obligated to carry out an investigation, during which the southern-fried private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, purposely exaggerating his New Orleans gentleman drawl), drops in to ask some questions of his own. When family members under interrogation ask what this interloper is doing in the room, they are told he was hired by an unknown person of interest to carry out his own research. Though the sequence gives us some idea of Benoit’s stylized methodology, the main purpose seems to be to introduce the parade of possible suspects, almost all of whom are closely related to Thrombey and have a stake in his fortune. All are also thoroughly repugnant in one way or another, thus turning the tables on the usual Christie strategy of throwing ringers in among the virtuous and the virulent. All the suspects in Knives Out are either snakes or idiots, except, of course, for the main suspect, Thrombey’s personal maid and nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who was the last to see him the night he died. Marta is the butt of the second good joke in the movie in that she is an immigrant, though none of the other members of the family can correctly remember which South American country she’s from.

In the overall scheme of things, Marta is both the most central character to the mystery and the movie’s only complex character. Everyone else is one-dimensional by design: Michael Shannon’s dull son in charge of Thrombey’s publishing; Jamie Lee Curtis’s grasping, condescending daughter; Chris Evans’ flamboyant playboy grandson; Don Johnson’s anally protective son-in-law; Toni Collette’s painfully obsequious widowed daughter-in-law. All have their reasons for wanting Thrombey dead, and all those reasons have to do with the fact that their own fortunes are directly tied to his success.

It is this socioeconomic dynamic that serves as Johnson’s thematic lynchpin, since he weaves the classic mystery style into an overarching narrative about the American Dream and what it means in the age of Trumpism. It’s a game attempt to subvert the genre, but in the end the genre must be served by a mystery that is not only airtight but thrilling. Johnson fails to have it all three ways.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), White Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Knives Out home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.

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