30 November 2019 576 Views

Knives Out: Rian Johnson has Subverted All Expectations by Resurrecting the Old School Murder Mystery via Clever, Charming Cast

by James Murphy

How DID RIAN JOHNSON pull off a perfect murder mystery movie? ‘I suspect Foul Play’, so will be investigating, thoroughly. 

NB: As with all great detective thrillers I have thrown in some red herrings and outright..lies. Or HAVE I ? Sorry 🙂

How to solve this? Well, let’s use the old school structure of the MEANS/ MOTIVE /OPPORTUNITY!

 

MEANS:

Very clever, indeed. Johnson has assembled a truly stellar cast.  Daniel Craig is a pervasive and pitch perfect presence; even off camera he is ‘there’ and that’s testament to his star power, charisma, charm and craftsmanship. That he manages to ‘star’ in this and yet blend, still, within an ensemble, speaks volumes about his passion for story, script and quality of product over his own ego. The accent is unnecessary, though. Yes, he ‘can’ do it and very well, in fact. But he’s playing the English detective, Endeavour Morse, as I predicted, so why Johnson gives Morse an American accent with Craig here is beyond me. Craig’s wife, Rachel Weisz, of course, started her career by starring in a Morse ep (Twilight of the Gods) so Daniel playing the legendary detective here is a nice little in joke in itself.

Rest of the cast are good though one could make a case for saying that they are underwritten and underused/ underplayed. Jamie Lee Curtis gets big billing here but this is nothing compared to the substance she gets in Halloween. And she does not convince as a smoker, bizarrely. Christopher Plummer remains vital here and it is always refreshing to see an older actor play their age yet thereby still drive a plot. Shame he has no scenes with Craig, though: they performed perfectly together in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo back in 2011.

Ana de Armas is endearingly sweet and has a kind of Audrey Tatou via Valeria Golino quality; very apt for a film which, by its nature, feels at once period and modern; both original and derivative.  It’s great to see Kevin Costner back in a big screen role, too. Sorry, I mean Corbin Bernsen. No, it’s Don Johnson. I think? Michael Shannon is also effective here but frankly can do this sort of thing in his sleep; neither unsympathetic nor entirely inviting our trust but equally never monopolising suspicion in this ‘who-dunnit’.

The design, atmospherics, lighting and sound are all excellent. Indeed, I was reminded, in places of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Neil Jordan, whilst still being a distinct piece. Johnson has learned lessons from The Last Jedi: subverting expectations, to use his favourite phrase, whilst never overreaching or failing to deliver the movie’s basic pitch. This is indeed a self contained yet satisfying and substantial murder mystery thriller, but laced with warmth, wit, the occasional laugh, jump scare and plenty of twists. I was captivated, entertained and immersed from start to finish.

MOTIVE:

The demographic target is unclear but that’s a good thing. You could, at a stretch, even term this a ‘family’ film, in so far as there are plenty of adult themes and concerns at work, but at no stage do they become so dark or explicit as to drown out a generally escapist and feel good vibe. One could credibly take parents, grandparents and adolescent kids to this: a perfect family night out at the pictures, in an era when it’s so difficult yet so important to choose a movie wisely.

As a tribute to the genre of the mystery movie, the film achieves its goals. This is like watching EVERY Agatha Christie adaptation, Columbo episode and indeed loving spoof (Clue, Murder by Death) all at once! It’s an engrossing ‘who-dunnit’ but also very much a ‘how solve’, with many an inversion as much as integration of the traditional tropes one might expect. It’s a frightfully civilised affair, whilst hinting at darker sub-texts (the passage of time; the sadness of age and ailing health; the breakdown of a family unit around money). Some hints and nods toward the Trump era political division though thankfully those are not over-laboured but simply thrown in to contextualise things and remind one that this is not in fact set in the past.

OPPORTUNITY:

This is at once a small movie AND a sleeper / even potentially popcorn worthy semi-blockbuster. I suspect it will do some solid business, too, given the cast and its clever placement just before Star Wars is released and around the time that the James Bond hype machine starts up for next year’s No Time to Die. They have certainly booked Daniel Craig at an interesting point in his career; he is looking beyond 007 and yet still a leading man with credibly romantic action hero credentials via some superficial weathering and the occasional hint of grumpy. Think Harrison Ford just post third Indiana Jones, when he did some of his best work (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Fugitive, Air Force One, What Lies Beneath). Harrison of course teamed with Daniel on the misconceived Cowboys and Aliens; such a shame they did not simply cast Craig as the son of Indiana Jones or alongside Harrison in a proper Star Wars film (our James Bond star is a fan of the space opera and even played a storm-trooper in The Force Awakens).

Equally though, Chris Evans gets a prominent role in Knives Out and it’s a BIT showy: ‘LOOK AT ME! I can ‘do’ character and comedy roles! I am NOT just Captain America!’. Not since David Tennant left Doctor Who in that overlong regeneration sequence has an actor’s performance served as such an obvious graduation piece / mailshot to casting directors. Actually: Tennant and Evans: pair them, now!

There is an attempt to fuse perhaps too many tones and flavours here, thereby compromising any sense of feeling or consequence or tension overall? Could do with an edit, too and some more visual innovation in its delivery of the denouement. A few minutes could have been trimmed to perfect things and a dash more action thrown in? There is a car chase and an explosion of sorts; not enough for a cinematic enterprise on this scale. That’s especially true in an era whereby truly cinematic masterpieces are relegated to ‘stream’ on Netflix /Amazon etc, yet a piece like this, which could have sat, easily, on television, gets a massively big screen treatment.

Overall, though? This is an IDEAL pre Christmas movie; chilling and warming at once; welcoming and using complexity of plot as a key to unlock a comfortingly simple morality which is explained, explicitly, in the film’s conclusion. And it therefore deserves every success. Recommended, with only the most minor of reservation. Well done, Rian and Daniel! B++ 

 

James Murphy is a World Famous Detective. When he’s not writing film reviews, of course 😉



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