Daily Archives: May 24, 2021

Knives Out (2019)

*. The country-house murder mystery is such a familiar tradition that it’s gone from the novels of the golden age of crime writing to board games and dinner theatre. So familiar that anyone coming to it today has to either inject a note of irony or up their game considerably. After all, in Sleuth (1972) Anthony Shaffer had sent up the whole genre, with its “world of coldness and class hatred.” And that knowingness and self-referentiality hadn’t gone away, with Sleuth recast as Deathtrap in 1982, and Gosford Park being another kick at the same old can.
*. Knives Out makes no attempt to hide its debt to Sleuth. The appearance of the Jolly Jack Tarr mannequin is enough of a hint, if the idea of an old mystery writer being offed in his mansion wasn’t enough to clue you in.
*. I was on board with all of this. I’m a huge fan of traditional country-house mysteries, and I love their modern treatments, be they parodic (Murder by Death, Clue) or earnest and faithful. The thing is, I would put Knives Out very much in the latter category, which makes some of the response to it hard to understand.
*. To take a few representative examples, Dani di Placido in Forbes opined that writer-director Rian Johnson “finds a way to revitalise the concept” and so “makes murder mystery great again.” David Sims writing in The Atlantic says that Johnson has “turned the whodunit on its head.” And, Jake Coyle of the Associate Press says that Johnson “believes earnestly in the whodunit, but just wants to turn it inside out,” enlivening it with “densely-plotted deconstruction.”
*. These are lazy critical clichés. Knives Out does nothing strange or new with the mystery formula. The other movies I’ve mentioned all did more to explore and expand the genre. What’s more, when you get right down to it the mystery here is pretty pedestrian.
*. I don’t mean to sound all negative. I had a good time watching Knives Out. I’m a fan of the genre and this is a good straight-up, old-school murder mystery, nicely produced and with a great cast. But it’s not very . . . mysterious. I’m no Hercule Poirot, but I had the guilty party tagged right from the start. Even the dogs figured that out. Hell, the poster was enough of a giveaway for me. I don’t know how much more of a hint you’d need. And as far as these things go the plot itself is quite straightforward. There’s a nod to The Big Clock in Marta trying to frustrate the investigation she’s playing Watson on, what Johnson thought of as a Hitchcock thriller within the mystery, but that’s the only wrinkle. There’s nothing that I would call a twist, unless you count the Columbo-inspired early reveal of Thrombey’s death.
*. In short, it’s not a story that turns the genre on its head or inside-out, or deconstructs it through dense plotting. In fact, it doesn’t take an approach that I would describe as fresh or new at all. It’s basically just an episode of Murder, She Wrote, with a contemporary political angle thrown in.
*. The politics of the form, however, were already being challenged fifty years ago in Sleuth. And as David Edelstein (who also found the movie to always be “on the brink of being cleverer than it is”) noted, “I had a better time at the B version of this movie — this summer’s gory, supernatural hack-’em-up Ready or Not.” I hadn’t thought of the connection to Ready or Not, but I think Edelstein is on point with the class conflict expressed in both movies.
*. Just to stick with criticizing the critics for a while, I was surprised by the number of reviewers who made a big thing about this being a Rian Johnson movie. I’ll confess the name meant nothing to me. I’d seen Brick years ago and thought it an interesting little indie, but nothing more. I’d seen Looper and it hadn’t registered as much of anything at all. I would never have been able to name the director.
*. This made me think of the response to Baby Driver being a movie by Edgar Wright. I had no idea why anyone would have thought that was a big deal. Then I saw Baby Driver and I still didn’t know. It’s not that these are terrible movies. They’re OK. But they’re just OK. Or maybe good. If you’re going to try to sell me on Edgar Wright or Rian Johnson or Ben Wheatley or Ari Aster as being the future of cinema for the daring way they’re reinventing the form then we’re not speaking the same language. Or watching the same movies.
*. I’ll add here as an aside that Baby Driver gets a mention in the script here while Edgar Wright called Knives Out his favourite movie of 2019. Which might be thought of as logrolling among chums.
*. As is traditional in these kinds of movies there’s a glittering ensemble cast. So all the more credit goes to Ana de Armas for not only holding her own but basically carrying things. As for Daniel Craig, I think he’s terrific except when he opens his mouth and does his Shelby Foote drawl. I’m sorry, but that simply does not work at all. It’s terrible, and doesn’t sound remotely authentic. But then is he any more absurd than Albert Finney (or Kenneth Branagh) as Poirot in their adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express? Every great fictional detective has to be eccentric in some way . . . and so we have Benoit Blanc.
*. Nice atmosphere and design elements. They really get their money’s worth out of that fan of knives. The “dumbest car chase of all time” is fun. Marta’s regurgitative reaction to untruth is a good joke, well played. It’s a clever enough plot. Good performances and a nice pace throughout, even with all the clunky set pieces like the initial series of interviews and the reading of the will. I enjoyed it. But then the genre is all about having fun. Agatha Christie called her novels “entertainments,” and that’s all Knives Out has to be. Why make it into something more? I think it will appeal most to fans knowledgeable in the tradition, but those same fans are the ones least likely to find anything special about it.