Tuesday, June 2, 2020

"KNIVES OUT" (2019) Review

"KNIVES OUT" (2019) Review

Over the past seven to eight years, I have developed something of a mixed opinion of Rian Johnson as a filmmaker. I have only seen three of his films - 2012's "LOOPER", the 2017 STAR WARS movie, "STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII - THE LAST JEDI" and his recent film, the 2019 Oscar nominated film, "KNIVES OUT". I became a fan of "LOOPER". I disliked "THE LAST JEDI". In fact, I disliked "THE LAST JEDI" so much that I was almost reluctant to see his new film, "KNIVES OUT" in the movie theaters.

In the end, my curiosity won out and I saw "KNIVES OUT" in the theaters. Also written by Johnson, the movie proved to be an unusual mystery. Let me explain. "KNIVES OUT" begins with the Thrombey family gathering at the Massachusetts home of wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey, to celebrate his 85th birthday. The following morning, Harlan's housekeeper, Fran, finds him dead in his private room, with his throat slit. The local police - Detective Lieutenant Elliot and Trooper Wagner - are convinced that Harlan had committed suicide. But the private detective accompanying them - Benoit Blanc - is convinced that Harlan had been murdered. It seems Blanc had been hired by anonymous party to investigate the novelist's death. When Blanc, Elliot and Wagner learn that Harlan's relationships with his family were strained, they find themselves with a list of suspects:

*Linda Thrombey Drysdale - Harlan's daughter, a real estate mogul who had started her company with his money
*Walter "Walt" Thrombey - Harlan's only living son, the CEO of his father's publishing company, whom the novelist wants to fire so that the former can forge his own career
*Richard Drysdale - Linda's husband, who helps her run her company and who is cheating on her with another woman
*Hugh Ransom Drysdale - Linda and Richard's son and Harlan's older grandson; a spoiled playboy whom Harlan had recently disowned
*Joni Thrombey - Harlan's daughter-in-law, widow of the novelist's deceased son, and a self-help guru; who has been stealing money from Harlan's estate
*Megan "Meg" Thrombey - Joni's daughter and Harlan's granddaughter, a college student whose education is threatened by the recent conflict between her mother and grandfather
*Donna Thrombey - Walt's wife and Harlan's daughter-in-law
*Jacob Thrombey - Walt and Donna's son and Harlan's younger grandson, who holds alt-right views

Blanc and the two police officers eventually turn to Marta Cabrera, Harlan's nurse and caregiver, for information on the family. It seems Marta had a close friendship with Harlan. But more importantly, neither Blanc or the cops are aware that Marta knows the true details behind Harlan's death and that it involved her accidentally administering him an overdose of morphine instead of his usual medication. Marta spends most of the film struggling to prevent Blanc, Elliot and Wagner from learning the truth behind her role in Harlan's death . . . unaware that a member of the family had set everything in motion in order to kill Harlan and benefit financially from his death.

"KNIVES OUT" was an interesting movie. And very unusual. Was it unusual in a good way or in a bad way? If I must be honest, I found some aspects of the movie rather questionable - only a few - but I can honestly say that its flaws had nothing to do with the unusual aspects of it. One problem I had with "KNIVES OUT" was its revelation scene of the story's true villain. I am not claiming that it was implausible. But . . . how can I put this? I found it a bit reaching. Just from looking at Harlan's toxicology report, Benoit Blanc was able to quickly unravel the mystery leading to the author's death. That toxicology report almost became a deus ex machina. I more than admire how Johnson used his story to examine the United States' outlook and treatment of immigrants - especially those from non-European countries. But with characters like Lieutenant Elliot and Fran, Johnson also had the opportunity to examine this country's attitudes toward race and class. And he never took it. Apparently, like Matthew Weiner and Joss Whedon, Rian Johnson can only deal with one issue at a time, even when he has the opportunity to touch upon more than one. My final problem with "KNIVES OUT" proved to be the status of Benoit Blanc in the story. I get it. He is private detective who was hired by an unknown client to solve the mystery surrounding Harlan Thrombey's death. My question is why the local police had more or less allowed Blanc to lead this investigation? Worse, the narrative bothered to explain how this happened, considering that no one - including Blanc - knew the identity of his client. According to the movie, Blanc had a high reputation as a private detective. So what? This is no guarantee that he would be allowed to lead the investigation into Harlan's death.

I would never be the first to say that "KNIVES OUT" was a perfect film. My complaints in the previous paragraph pretty much states otherwise. However, I cannot deny that this was not only a first-rate mystery, but a rather unusual one. Very unusual and very original. And I love originality in a story - especially when it is well written. Before I had even seen the film, I had assumed that its narrative would focus on the Benoit Blanc character investigating Harlan Thrombey's death. And it did . . . during its first thirty minutes or so. But when the narrative revealed that Harlan had sliced his own throat to save Marta's nursing career (and prevent her mother from being deported as an undocumented citizen) by hiding that she had accidentally given him the wrong medication, it focused on the latter's attempt to prevent Blanc and the police from focusing on the real details behind the author's death. And if I must be frank, I have never encountered such a narrative before. At least one I can recall.

Johnson also did an excellent job in conveying the politics behind Harlan's suicide and Marta's efforts to hide the truth behind his death. As I had stated earlier, Harlan feared that if Marta was punished for accidentally giving him the wrong medication, her mother, an illegal immigrant, would suffer by association. This is understandable, considering the strong anti-immigrant stance taken by many countries in recent years. What I found very interesting was Johnson's portrayal of the Thrombeys' attitude toward Marta. The older members affectionately call her "kid" and constantly remind her that they regard her as an official member of the family. Some family members like Joni Thrombey and her daughter Meg loudly beat the drum for a liberal, pro-immigrant stance. Richard expresses "admiration" for Marta because he believes her family had entered the United States "legally", revealing a passive-aggressive racism. Walt never says anything in support or against undocumented workers. He simply treats Marta as "a member of the family". Only his 16 year-old son Jacob seems openly bigoted. In a way, even Harlan belongs on this list.

Yet, despite the family's stance that Marta is "one of them", they do occasionally treat her as a servant - as shown in one moment when Richard automatically hands Marta an empty tea, assuming that she works for the family and not simply as Harlan's nurse. And not one member of the family cannot remember where Marta was born. As far as the Thrombeys were concerned, she was either from Paraguay, Ecuador and in the case of Ransom - Linda and Richard's son - Brazil. As for Harlan's Anglo housekeeper, Fran, she barely exists as far as the family is concerned. I suspect this is due to the fact that Fran is not as close to Harlan as he is to Marta. In the end, their "liberalism" is all about kissing up to Harlan in order to use him as a walking ATM. Speaking of Ransom Drysdale, he proved to be quite the dark horse. The character hardly ever interact with Marta, until the reading of Harlan's will. Following that incident, he learns about her mistake with Harlan's medicine and decides to help her deceive Blanc and the police. However, the movie eventually reveals that he does so . . . not from the goodness of his own heart. Despite being closer in personality to the mystery author, Ransom ends up proving that he is still a product of a privileged upbringing.

"KNIVES OUT" provided some very interesting performances. The solid ones came from the likes of Marlene Forte, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Jaeden Martell, and Shyrley Rodriguez. The movie also featured surprising, yet entertaining appearances from M. Emmett Walsh as Harlan's aging security guard, Frank Oz as Harlan's long-suffering attorney, and K Callan, who portrayed Harlan's centenarian mother with her eyes and one or two words. Katherine Langford did a great job in conveying Meg Thrombey's ardent liberalism and hypocrisy at the same time. Riki Lindhome gave an effective performance as Walt Thrombey's brittle wife, Donna. Noah Segan was both funny and enduring as police Trooper Wagner, who happened to be a fan of Harlan's novels. And Lakeith Stanfield gave a wry, yet humorous performance as the laconic Detective Lieutenant Elliot.

And then . . . we have those portraying the senior members of the Thrombey family. Toni Collette was very amusing, yet slightly mannered as Harlan's daughter-in-law, Joni Thrombey. Listening to her accent, I found myself wondering if her character supposed to be from Southern California. Michael Shannon gave a very subtle, yet intense performance as Harlan's younger son, Walt, who had become too dependent on his publishing company for success. Don Johnson, on the other hand, was hilarious as Harlan's unfaithful son-in-law Richard Drysdale, whose sardonic and outgoing personality hid his dependence on his wife and a bigoted streak. Jamie Lee Curtis was wonderful as the blunt, no-nonsense Linda Thrombey Drysdale, who managed to carve a successful business in real estate on her own - with Daddy's money, of course. Despite her more sympathetic portrayal, Curtis did a great job in proving that she was just as spoiled and over-privileged as the rest of her family. Christopher Plummer was marvelous as the clever, yet warm-hearted Harlan Thrombey, who seemed to have become aware that his success as an author and publisher contrasted with his failure as a family patriarch.

I am certain that many fans of Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would be surprised to see Chris Evans in the role of Harlan's over privileged grandson, Hugh Ransom Drysdale. What I enjoyed about Evans' performance was that it was subtle, sardonic and if I must be honest, rather surprise. At one point it seemed as if his Ransom felt genuine compassion for Marta's situation . . . until he reveals his willingness to help stemmed more from his desire to get some kind of financial reward from her. I have never heard of Ana de Armas before "KNIVES OUT", yet she has been an actress for the past fifteen years or so. Many have regarded her role as the movie's heroine, Marta Cabrera, as a star making performance. In fact, she managed to garner a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical. Did she deserve it? Uh . . . yeah! De Armas gave a superb performance as the kind-hearted, yet besieged Marta who was forced to juggle between her grief over Harlan's death, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the changes in her circumstances and her struggle to prevent Benoit Blanc and the cops from learning the truth about her patient's death. The actress' performance was balanced by a deliberately theatrical performance from Daniel Craig as the story's main sleuth, Benoit Blanc. Judging from his "Deep South" accent and French name, I can only gather that the detective came from one of the Gulf States - probably Louisiana. Now, I would not call Craig's Southern accent accurate. And I believe that he would be the first to say so. But for some reason, it matched his character's overly dramatic personality. I usually do not like theatrical or hammy performances, but there are some occasions when they actually worked. And Craig's Benoit Blanc worked like spades. With great skill, the actor managed to combine Blanc's theatrical personality with a talent for observation that would rival Sherlock Holmes. Like his leading lady, Craig managed to earn a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination - for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical.

I will be the first to admit that I had a few quibbles about "KNIVES OUT". But only a few. In the end, Rian Johnson managed to create a first-rate and original mystery that managed to take me by surprise on several occasions. He did this with excellent direction and a superb cast led by Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas.


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