TIFF 2019: Knives Out, by David Bax
From, I suppose, a marketing standpoint, the major selling point of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is its cast. The Hercule Poirot-esque private investigator is played by Daniel Craig; his police detective liaison is LaKeith Stanfield; and the family of wealthy assholes they’re investigating after the death of its patriarch (Christopher Plummer) includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Riki Lindhome and Jaeden Martell. M. Emmet Walsh and Frank Oz even make appearances. And the pedigree does not disappoint, especially when the family are in the rhythms of one of the numerous ensemble scenes in which they pick and tear at each other and only occasionally engage in fisticuffs. But the movie rests on its lead, Ana de Armas, as the murdered man’s nurse, Marta. So warm and sympathetic in Blade Runner 2049, de Armas here gets a crack at a flesh and blood character and inhabits every inch and drop of both perfectly.
Johnson’s screenplay hurls itself in new directions so often that describing the plot beyond the opening scenes would be giving too much away. So here’s that: Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), a massively successful murder mystery novelist, has been found dead in his handsome New England manor the morning after his 85th birthday party, which was attended by his entire family. Initially ruling his death a suicide, the investigation is reopened a week later when Craig’s gentleman sleuth (he’s actually referred to as such), Benoit Blanc, is hired to take a closer look.
Matching the lively screenplay and performances at every turn is the movie’s score. Nathan Johnson (yes, he’s related) provides a jazzy backdrop and the suggested improvisation provides contrast to the film’s narrative precision.
It’s been over two years since Jordan Peele’s Get Out was released and the influence on American genre filmmaking continues to sink in. Knives Out is another excoriation of white privilege but these attempts at real world relevance are often the film’s weakest points. Johnson is a high achiever when it comes to style and storytelling but he lacks Peele’s allegorical convictions and his ability to make white viewers uncomfortable enough to realign their perspectives. The Thrombey family argues about President Trump without ever saying his name and with both sides sounding like idiots. Yes, Martell’s character is an “alt-right troll dipshit” but Collette’s liberal glamor mom runs a dumb Goop knockoff called Flam, so who’s to say who’s right? Add to that the movie’s apparent belief that merely acknowledging the existence of Twitter and Instagram counts as making jokes and Knives Out‘s attempts to be some sort of movie of the times largely fall flat. It does succeed in one major way, though, which is the awareness that, no matter which side they’re on, people like the Thrombeys–people who have everything and get to decide what’s best for everyone else–are not the victims of Donald Trump, with whom they have so much in common. First generation Latinx-Americans like Marta–and their extended families–are.
Fortunately, the occasional overreach by Johnson doesn’t get in the way of his skill as a crafter of mystery. Knives Out positions us just where it wants us, comfortably knowing more than any one character until the tumblers fall into place and we realize there’s another door, another room that we hadn’t even suspected.