12 December 2019

"Knives Out": Return of the Country House Murder Mystery


Last week my wife and I got a rare night out without our son, and so we took ourselves out to see Knives Out, Rian Johnson's new twist on an old form: the "Country House Murder Mystery."

Man, this is SOME cast
Johnson, perhaps best known as The Man Who Killed Off Luke Skywalker, has long been a favorite film-maker of mine. In fact, in advance of the release of Knives Out, I recently went back and reviewed his first film, a wicked little indie-noir known as Brick, for Noir City Magazine's recurring column, "My Favorite Neo-Noir."

(Spoiler alert: I think Brick is brilliant. Not to be missed!)

Curtis, Plummer, Johnson & Shannon
I wasn't sure what to expect from Johnson with this outing. Brick was definitely "indie," mostly financed by Johnson's extended family (Construction business), with a terrific a cast of (mostly) unknowns backing up lead actor Joseph Gordon Levitt. Knives Out has garnered considerable advance attention on the strength and depth of it cast alone.

And that cast, under Johnson's direction of a screenplay he also wrote, flat-out delivers.

Michael Shannon & Chris Evans


Christopher Plummer is brilliant as the successful mystery author/family patriarch/requisite dead body/ guy everyone secretly hated. Jamie Lee Curtis shines as his driven, perceptive, angry daughter. Don Johnson is terrific as her "complicated" husband. Chris Evans  as their asshat son makes you want to by turns laugh out loud and slap him. Michael Shannon is nuanced and riveting as Plummer's nebishy-and-none-too-successful only surviving son. Toni Collette nails the portrayal of the flakey New Age widow of Plummer's long-dead other son. Ana De Armas steal scene after scene with a pitch-perfect portrayal of Plummer's pathologically honest nurse/unofficial amanuensis/sole confidante.

And I won't even get into their kids.

Then there are the cops! LaKeith Stanfield is great as the local police detective with the thankless task of running the investigation of the recently departed novelist's suspicious death. Frequent Johnson collaborator Noah Segan hilariously portraying a Massachusetts state trooper/crime fiction fanboy, and Daniel Craig perfectly plays the reknowned private detective improbably consulting with the local cops on this baffling scenario.

Craig busy detecting and Stanfield busy being frustrated
Was the patriarch murdered? If so who did it? Like the movie posters say about the film, "Hell, any of them could have done it."

Ana De Armas and The House
What's more, a lot of Johnson's signature moves were on full display in this film. He loves chase scenes (Check.). Sunset shots/rumination pieces. (Check.). Witty dialogue (Check.). Frequently flashbacks, often to the same scene from different character perspectives (Check multiples times over). Cinematography which owes a lot to classic film noir (dark rooms in a big old mansion, duh, Check!). At least one slow-motion shot (Check.). And a TON of plot twists and turns (Check, check, check!).

I was chewing over all of the above as my wife and I left the theater after the film. Out of the blue, she turned to me and, as usual, neatly summed up the experience in a way that had not occurred to me.

"Johnson," she said, "Made a cozy."

And she was right!

And he even nailed the accent!
Knives Out takes the time-honored (some would say, "tired.") "unexpected death of a person with lots of enemies in a country house" trope and puts it on its head. And it works spectacularly. Like Brick before it, Knives Out manages to serve as both mash-up and tribute, giving viewers a new angle, a different take on what could rightly be considered a shop-worn plot device.

I mean, hey, it's been done before. And it's been sent-up before, too. This film owes equal debts to the likes of Murder, She Wrote, and such parodies of the form as Clue.

That said, Johnson and his cast still manage to breathe new life into both the form and the parodies of it. And best of all, they bring the whole thing off as a clear love letter to the form they're riffing on.

There's so much to like here.

And on that note, I don't want to give too much away, so I'll wrap this entry up here. What else can I say? Knives Out is well worth a look!

Did you see it? If so, what did you think? Please give a response in the Comments section!

See you in two weeks with the de rigueur "End of Year" post. Happy Holidays!

5 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

We saw KNIVES OUT last Saturday. You are right. Excellent. Ana De Armas was outstanding. Hell, all the cast was outstanding.

Eve Fisher said...

I'm going! I'm going! I can hardly wait.

Don Coffin said...

We thought the movie was very good (but found the advertising campaign, which seems to have pitched the movie as a comedy, very much off-base). Personally, I thought Ana De Armas stole the movie, just a brilliant performance. Although all of them did very good to excellent jobs. The twists were nicely twisty and the ending was very well handled. (One minor quibble--Daniel Craig's accent seemed to me to wobble from time to time, although that might have been intentional. Suggesting he wants to be seen as a deep-south PI when he's really something else.)

Robert Lopresti said...

I saw it today and enjoyed it very much. De Arnas carried so much of the weight and did it wonderfully. I thought Jamie Lee Curtis was badly underused. One movie that was saluted more than once was SLEUTH.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

We saw it last night, enjoyed it very much after the first few minutes, during which we wondered if we'd be disappointed in spite of all the hype—not from the media, but from everyone on DorothyL. After that, loads of fun. I'm willing to call that comedy. You couldn't take the characters seriously enough to find them sad or tragic, ie what makes me crazy when I see a movie about people's pain and disappointment billed as comedy. I loved nurse Marta's "tell" when she tried to lie (nope, not gonna spoil it) and the twist piled on twist and twist again. Your nuanced critique of the performances is way above my head, but I thought the acting was just fine, though not all the actors were familiar to me. It's a shame so many people warned everyone about Daniel Craig's Southern accent in advance. It might not have been distracting if we'd been allowed to discover it for ourselves. I didn't mind recognizing Christopher Plummer and Jamie Lee Curtist, and I didn't recognize Toni Collette till the credits rolled. Last point: I don't think the nurse was pathologically honest. The point is that she was genuine—a character with a stake in reality (her fear for the deportable mom), outside the frame of the trope, or let's say beyond it, with whom viewers could empathize. As a result of her presence, the movie was endearing, not merely clever like, say, a Robert Altman film, in which there was never a character you could root for.