Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Knives Out

Director Rian Johnson

Director Rian Johnson (right) with actors Chris Evans and Ana de Armas on the set

KNIVES OUT            B-                   
USA  (130 mi)  2019  d: Rian Johnson                       Official site

When people get desperate, the knives come out.
―tagline for the film

A terrific story does not necessarily translate to a terrific film, as this is easily one of the uglier digitalized film looks in over a decade, resembling some of the earliest efforts with the technology, overly dark, featuring plenty of troublesome empty shadows, while the facial crevices in the multitude of close-ups are just horrific, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the dreary, colorless palette of Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009).  From the maker of BRICK (2005), still his most original feature, THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008), and Looper (2012), this is a satiric, modern era update of the classical Agatha Christie thriller where a ghastly murder takes place in a Gothic mansion, yet no one is allowed to leave the premises until police can interrogate all the suspects, where a clever detective has a way of unleashing all the hidden family secrets, often pitting one suspect against another, where money is always a motive as insurmountable clues mount up, yet audiences relish the idea of playing along, making a collective game out of solving the crime.  This is old-fashioned homage entertainment, turning a house into a board game of Clue (which apparently grew out of the British popularity of Agatha Christie novels, writing 66 of them during her lifetime, devising all manner of novel ways to kill someone), given a modern era twist that lightheartedly pokes fun at the Trump administration’s xenophobic views on immigrants, subverting expectations by making a lesser character (an immigrant caretaker who is viewed as little more than hired help) the smartest person in the room, befuddling all the rich white folks who are screwed out of their inheritance by some vengeful trickery, quickly blaming the outsider, but it’s the family’s own avarice and malicious intent that ultimately does them in, every single one a freeloader, yet they’re left to bitch and moan about how they were cheated out of what was rightfully theirs, while they gleefully support the idea they are self-made success stories (despite receiving a generous million dollar loan to start their business), leading lives of privilege, always identifying with the upper class, continually blaming others for their own shortcomings.  While no one really distinguishes themselves here, no standout performances, you’d like to think there’s some sardonic Buñuelian wit about it, but that’s not the case either, as instead the model seems to be the Joseph Mankiewicz film SLEUTH (1972) based upon the wildly popular play by British playwright Anthony Shaffer, where a famous upper class author of detective novels is pitted against the unorthodox tactics of his lower class rival, each trying to outwit the other, yet the author’s supreme arrogance allows him to presume victory, where his expectations are masterfully subverted, slowly turning the tables, where that smug air of hubris finally gets its comeuppance.  That original source is lightyears better than this material, which feels so middle of the road.   
While it’s an unconventional but likeable enough ensemble cast of familiar faces, some absent from the screen for a while, as Johnson creates a pleasant atmosphere of murky suspense, where the viewing audience feels comfortable spending time with this group, much like Tarantino does with his casts.  At the center is the aging patriarch, successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is happily celebrating his 85th birthday, surrounded by his family, but winds up dead before the night is done, apparently slitting his own throat, which his family finds incomprehensible, thinking it must be murder.  Police detectives arrive in the form of Lakeith Stanfield as Detective Elliot and his underling Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), who is thrilled to be there, a huge fan, having read every one of Harlan’s books, offering commentary along the way, explaining how it resembles the plots from various books.  Sitting in the background is Benoit Blanc, (Daniel Craig), reprising that southern accent he used in Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (2017), an overly polite Southern gentleman acknowledged to be a hired detective, though it remains a mystery just who exactly hired him, yet he announces from the outset he suspects foul play.  Losing patience with the dull police routine, he eventually asserts himself as the sleuth mastermind, taking a lead role in the questioning, though at times his grandiloquent verbiage is so charmingly quaint that it feels he’s intentionally pleasing himself, adding a bit of color to the proceedings.  Jamie Lee Curtis is Harlan’s daughter Linda, a successful real estate mogul married to a deadbeat husband, Don Johnson as Richard, an opinionated oaf with decidedly racist leanings.  Harlan put his son Walt (Michael Shannon, always in bulky sweaters) in charge of his own publishing house, with strict instructions never to do adaptations for movies or television, which would make big bucks, but dilute the stories (exactly as this film does).  Joni (Toni Collette) is widowed from a deceased son, yet continues to be married to the lifestyle, while the black sheep of the family is the overly smug Chris Evans as Ransom (the offspring of Linda and Richard), who lavishly spends money like its growing on trees, viewed as a pompous ass, an object of derision by the rest of the family.  The nurse caretaker is Marta (Ana de Armas), who provides the needed medicine for Harlan, and seems to be the one person he could openly talk to, who at some point in the film is from either Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba, Paraguay, or Ecuador, though may in fact have been born in the United States, but her mother is undocumented.  Nonetheless, while professing sanctimonious appreciation for her services, she is largely viewed as undocumented herself, as if the family has done her a huge favor by hiring her.  

The beauty in films like this is in the back and forth banter between characters, where Johnson takes great relish in providing theatrically fun dialogue that moves along at a crisp pace, while unearthed clues and various backstory reveals add to a tautly connected storyline that continually develops over time, moving from one family member to another, where it has the feel as if the dead Harlan is actually pulling the strings behind the scenes, unraveling like one of his books, as so much of the story is generated through his character.  Each family member has a private conference with him on the day he died, the contents of which might provide an alibi for murder, yet each professes perfect innocence to the police, covering up any hint of suspicion, which, of course, arouses suspicion.  Blanc quickly discovers the key to resolving this matter, as Marta has a medical condition where she vomits if she tells a lie, which is like having a polygraph machine for all her testimony.  Rerouting all the witness testimony through her is a new angle, as if under a witness protection program by the police, who avail themselves of her resources, quickly determining that all the Thrombey children have lied to authorities and covered up what was really said behind closed doors, as the brunt of the film is to get to the heart of the matter, weaving its way through a circuitous path of lies and subterfuge.  The double crosses here are fast and furious, as what is presumed as the truth may later come undone, continually unraveling new information, where some of the most effective asides incorporate movie or TV reports about horrendous murders, with viewers intensely riveted by the material, including Marta’s mother, seen viewing a TV episode of Murder, She Wrote in Spanish.  The house itself plays out like a haunted house, protected by an iron gate and an elaborate security system, with two Doberman guard dogs, while the inside is filled with items Harlan loved, including masks, laughing clown or sailor faces (some identical replicas from the set of SLEUTH), with items crammed in every corner, where he was a lover of games of all sorts, spending much of his free time engaged in clever musings.  The film carries that same esprit de corps with each building mystery, as flashbacks, recounted testimony, or new revelations prevent any easy resolution, growing ever more complicated, where there are stories within stories within stories that may leave viewers confused, but that’s the beauty of the detective mystery.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the amount of screen time for Marta, a daughter of immigrants who thoroughly outworks the bluebloods, earnest and apparently sincere, the moral center of a surrounding cesspool, who was initially thought to have nothing to do with it, but may have everything to do with it, but she couldn’t be more distinctly different (though bland) than the vengefully manipulative family members who think only of themselves, where the reading of the will is a hilarious indictment of their true character, each one more detestable than the next, hanging themselves by their own self-centered testimony, eventually falling like a house of cards, coinciding with Blanc’s ultimate epiphany of truth, an indictment that spares no one, creating a topsy turvy world where nothing is real and fleeting perceptions can change in an instant.     

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