Knives Out

A plot line that has been done to death is sometimes the hardest one to get right. There is a perpetual threat looming over the head of any director who attempts to work with traditional storylines. All storylines at this point have some precursors, so the potential to come off as derivative and cliched is the source of persistent headaches for anyone attempting to tell a good story. In a way the writer is in a catch-22: traditional storylines keep recurring for good reason: they are effective. A good hero plot is close to the harp strings of the human heart. However, in order to be effective, rather than derivative, within the boundaries of these traditional storylines requires a storyteller with a truly deft touch for both the old and the new, of bringing to life again the potential within a storyline that has been done a thousand times before.

Enter Rian Johnson. In one respect, his directorial thumbprint is defined by his shedding of convention: “Looper” was a unique spin within a sci-fi genre that pushed the boundaries of what defined the genre itself. His proclivity to push boundaries has the potential to backfire, as well, admittedly. In a Star Wars universe with a world of creative possibility, Johnson stumbled with audiences by being subversive of expectations to an unnecessary degree. “The Last Jedi” for many is proof that doing the unexpected is not an inherently good decision. Again, traditional stories last for good reason.

The remarkable thing about Johnson’s touch on the classic constrained mansion murder mystery is that this is probably the most deliciously well-executed example of his style yet seen, but it comes in the most constrained of plot lines that he has yet placed on the big screen. The setting and plot are tighter, and consequently his style is more deft and clever than brash and incoherent. A good mystery always walks a tightrope between leading the audience and putting them off the scent, but here, while all the traditional elements of the murder mystery have their place, the manner of their execution and unraveling is as novel as can be reasonably expected in the medium.

The movie works a delicate balance with dark comedy, character drama, and satire, but manages it well enough that the tension doesn’t strangle the story. Instead of coming off as disjointed, however, the balance somehow holds; the drama is not subverted by the comedy, and neither is the satire so pointed that it takes away from the drama. It works with all of the brick and mortar of the standard murder mystery, but never quite in the way expected. It is both serious and satirical. It involves both a duet of strong characters (Craig’s Det. Blanc and Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera stand out) and personages who are not so much characters as characterizations: two dimensional surface-level interlopers who lack even the basic integrity to recognize their own shallowness. It is a murder mystery in which the mystery isn’t really the murder. As with any good mystery, the audience will see parts of it coming, but never the entire thing. It is the unique nature of what is seen and what is not that is the devil in the details of this film.

The cinematography, just as in “The Last Jedi” and “Looper,” is fantastic and cleverly done, fitting nicely with the overall feel of the movie. Both the plot and the imagery are sharp, bold, and colorful, culminating in a deadly, or perhaps not so deadly, point. Both the mystery and the imagery are characteristically tongue-in-cheek, almost as if there is someone winking at the audience just out of the frame of nearly every shot. It is a film that is self aware, but slyly, and in a self-deprecating sort of way. A ridiculous car chase is declaimed upon as such by a number of characters in one particular scene. It is an idea characteristic of the entire film.

Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc is worthy of special mention, as he is arguably the most delightful character in the film. The character clearly draws inspiration from classic sleuths like Holmes and Poirot, but ends up so predominantly Columbo-esque that even the audience begins to wonder from time to time whether or not the man is in fact a fool. The movie as a whole is chock-full of memorable moments and lines, but none so fantastic as Craig’s key monologue, hereafter referred to as “the most amazing soliloquy on doughnuts and doughnut holes you never knew you needed to hear.”

The story, as anything, is not without its faults. It very clearly has a political axe to grind, but unlike more egregious examples of ham-handed political messages (*cough, cough, Avengers Endgame, cough, cough*), at least this particular one makes sense within the context of the story. The story plays itself as a metaphor more than is really required, but doesn’t end up falling over the edge into outright punditry. The blade cuts a wide swath through a cross-section of the rich socialite types, but is not so sharp that it ends up severing the thread of the story.

By and large, however, the style, structure, and story are unified throughout, and never end up feeling ultimately out of joint. It is a consistently enjoyable and surprisingly dramatic film which fulfills most of what you would hope for in a classic murder mystery, as well as a whole coterie of things you wouldn’t have thought of. It is a story which menaces a self-reflective audience with a barbed point; but ultimately that point doesn’t end up being quite as devastating as it threatens to be.

★★

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I write these reviews because I love film, storytelling, and cinema as an art in pursuit of truth and beauty. On a more personal level, I simply like writing and thinking about the themes and ideas of movies. However, if you would like to support me in this endeavor, I do greatly appreciate your support!

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