I do have a few friends who care what I have to say about movies. And yet, while I stated right at the startthat I would talk about films in this space, usually when I want to offer an opinion about something I’ve seen, I dash off a paragraph on Facebook. It seems that Ah Sweet Mystery has essentially evolved into a paradigm for single-minded genre specific commentary.
And yet here I am: writing about a film on the blog. Of course, the film is a mystery; what’s more, it is that rarity of things . . . a modern whodunit! Even more tantalizing is the fact that it offers a totally original story enshrined in the modern world while at the same time it embodies the tropes of classic detective fiction. In short, I’ve been salivating to see this movie for months!!!!!!
I’m not really here to write a review: you can troll every major newspaper and tons of on-line film gurus to find out if they liked it. But for my friends who don’t usually follow my blog but clicked the link because they want to find out if they should see this movie, I say . . . you certainly should. It’s wonderful fun, slickly directed and acted to the teeth by a cast that is clearly having a ball. In fact, I want everyone I know to see it and rave and tell their friends so that somebody in Hollywood will take note that, on the same weekend that Frozen 2 played in a thousand times as many houses as Knives Out, this little film kicked ass and should prompt others to revive the flagging whodunit genre so that we don’t have to rely on dreck like the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston mediocrity Murder Mystery on Netflix.
The New York Times review, which is positive in a lukewarm way, describes Knives Out as “an energetic, showy take on a dusty Agatha Christie-style murder mystery.” (The reviewer refers to her twice in the same way: under the article’s title we find, “Rian Johnson dusts off Agatha Christie . . . “) Thank you, Manohla Dargis, we get the point – Christie is tired old stuff that needs to be given a shot to work with modern audiences.
But I’ll say this for director Johnson: using wholly original material of his own making, he shows more understanding of, and respect for, Christie’s oeuvre than the makers of the last few Christie adaptations have. The film of Crooked House was faithful to the source but arid, while the Sarah Phelps’ The A.B.C. Murders infused gobs of sex, violence and disease into the original to make it more “relevant.” And the less said about the BBC Tommy and Tuppence series, the better. No, Johnson shows a command for the genre and an abiding love for it through major plot points and tiny touches. I want to mention just one of the latter because I might be the only person on earth who notices it: Christopher Plummer plays a key role here, and his name is Harlan Thrombey. I sat in that theatre for several minutes trying to figure out why that name sounded so familiar – and then it hit me! I don’t know if this is pure coincidence, or if Mr. Johnson and I need to have lunch someday because we are soul mates. Check this link out, and then let me know if you think I’m crazy.
I want to speak about the plot as little as possible. As my mystery-loving friends know, spoilers can not only ruin an experience, they can damage a friendship. I waited until after I saw the film to read any reviews, where I learned that the journalists covering the film were subjected to a pre-show video by the director begging them not to ruin any surprises for the audience. The reviews I read tried to skirt this issue by giving a bare bones synopsis of the plot, but then they would ruin some of the running gags and character surprises. I was lucky enough to view the film with none of this information to lessen the impact, and I want to give that same opportunity to all of you.
At the same time, I want to make an assurance to my mystery reading friends that this is a good mystery. It is a modern film that pays homage to the classic writers and their methods in interesting filmic ways. Some of these methods may make you think you have figured out where the film is going. The signs may be subtle: for example, look at the décor of the house at the beginning. It will remind the savvier mystery fan of another mystery, which will lead you to make assumptions about a certain character. (I will not say here if your assumptions are right or wrong. Let’s save all those conversations for the comments below.)
And while there is a Christie-like atmosphere in the central conceit of a family gathering in the country for the patriarch’s birthday (that’s all the plot you get from me!), there are also elements of Carr, who liked to unveil his solutions part by part, while still keeping you in the dark until the end. Johnson achieves this in fine fashion through the use of flashbacks, which peel away the layers of mystery like an onion only to unveil new conundrums and to cause you to rethink your feelings about one character after another.
As I watched, I was reminded of Taken at the Flood, one of Christie’s most contextually relevant novels. There are quite a few similarities between the Cloade family and the Thrombeys of Knives Out, and while Flood presented a traditional murder mystery with the travails of post-war England as a most pertinent background to the action, the issue that stands out in the newer story is class, and more specifically the current immigrant experience. It lends a sense of serious import to the proceedings without in any way spoiling the fun; in fact, some of the running gags I want you to discover for yourself are related to this issue.
This made me think of Game of Thrones! Intentional? Or not???
Those of us whose love for the genre all but forces us to view the film through a meta-cognitive lens are going to check off the classic elements one by one and see which we find acceptable and which we find wanting. I thought Johnson made sunshine out of his utilization of the country house mystery and the dysfunctional family, but all of this follows along fairly traditional lines. A more interesting, and perhaps more divisive, discussion might be made over the film’s sleuth, a Poirot from the deep South named Benoit Blanc. I have no issue with Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the character; it is delightful. But the script mildly subverts the position we usually find this all-important character in when reading a traditional mystery. Maybe I’m the only one who will see it, and frankly, I don’t know yet how I feel about it.
For many true puzzle crime addicts, the gold standard of films is The Last of Sheila. To them I want to say right away that Knives Out isn’t going to change your mind, as it’s not nearly the intellectual exercise that Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins offered us. The ending is satisfying and contains surprises, but it isn’t overly cerebral like Sheila or flashy like some of Christie’s best solutions. I can’t honestly say that, as a puzzle, it plays completely fair, although it sort of does. At any rate, the film is a full-force celebration of my favorite genre, and it accomplishes what any good film should – it entertains and amuses us.
There you have it: my (hopefully) spoiler-free thousand+ words on Knives Out. I had a blast watching it and look forward to seeing it again. I look forward even more to dissecting it with others. So here’s the deal: I hereby declare the comments section below SPOILER TERRITORY!!! Pay attention to this: if you want to talk about the movie, including the solution or the clues or other elements that one would do better to discover first by watching the film, then you are welcome to do so below.
If you have NOT watched the film, then DON’T READ THE COMMENTS!!! If you want to reply to this blog without going there, hit me up on Facebook!
I hope I have made this clear. I wouldn’t want anyone reading the comments and then complaining that the film has been ruined for them. Really!!! I’ve gone 150 words past 1000 to make that clear.
I want to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving! Gather with your loved ones, turn your phones off, avoid discussing politics for one day, and eat your fill without guilt. Oh, and try not to murder anybody.