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Knives Out Movie Review

Knives Out (2019) movie poster Knives Out

Theatrical Release: November 27, 2019 / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Ransom Drysdale), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walt Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombey), LaKeith Stanfield (Lieutenant Elliot), Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombey), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey), Riki Lindhome (Donna Thrombey), Edi Patterson (Fran), Frank Oz (Alan Stevens), K Callan (Greatnana Wanetta), Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner), M. Emmet Walsh (Mr. Proofroc), Marlene Forte (Marta's Mom)

 

Getting hired to direct a Star Wars movie should mean many exciting things for a filmmaker: a huge built-in audience, cinematic immortality, financial security, and no difficulty finding work anytime soon. Earning that call from Lucasfilm is indisputable proof
you've made it in Hollywood. But it doesn't always turn out that way. Even if you aren't let go before production (Colin Trevorrow on the upcoming Episode IX) or in the middle of production (Phil Lord and Chris Miller on Solo), you aren't guaranteed to win over the passionate, resolute fanbase. Living proof of that is Rian Johnson.

Getting the keys to the Star Wars kingdom must have been a dream come true for the '70s kid who grew up to write and direct Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper. But Johnson's contribution to the revered sci-fi saga, 2017's The Last Jedi, was met with hatred not experienced since George Lucas' first two prequels. Critics liked the chances Johnson took, almost universally praising his Episode VIII. But the general public was divided and Star Wars fans are nothing if not overdramatic and hyperbolic. Although it seems like the lines are almost evenly drawn between those who liked the movie and those who didn't, negativity towards The Last Jedi follows the movie wherever it goes: Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, pretty much any comments section on anything even tangentially related to the Star Wars universe.

It's enough to make one seriously doubt that Johnson is going to follow through on his ambiguous Star Wars trilogy announced before The Last Jedi even opened, especially after the box office failure of the Ron Howard-completed Solo drove Disney to pump the brakes in general on this lucrative over-40-year old franchise they acquired in 2012.

Johnson's follow-up to his polarizing tentpole is something completely different. Knives Out is a comedic Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Some Last Jedi haters seem hellbent on seizing the opportunity to keep trolling the man they blame with having the Star Wars series go off the rails, but in addition to that there is also to bound to be some upsetting déjà vu, since Knives Out has garnered even more critical favor than The Last Jedi did. Part of the sting surrounding Jedi -- and I'll need to give it a second viewing to see if there's merit to the criticism -- is that professional critics loved the film, a month after they hated and helped sink Justice League. For some, the disconnect between what they watched and what they read constituted a betrayal. Some even went so far as to accuse Disney of buying the good reviews. Those cuckoo conspiracy theories won't apply here; Knives Out is a Lionsgate film, one of the few studios that has never been linked to Disney. But I bet that plenty of moviegoers will not be as won over as those viewing the film who contribute to the toxic "Tomatometer." For that matter, I certainly was not.

In Rian Johnson's take on an Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is the Hercule Poirot, though he sounds more like Colonel Sanders.

Johnson has assembled an exciting cast here, with icons of at least four different generations sharing the screen.

Wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has died of an apparent suicide, which surprises everyone who knew him. Police and private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) are summoned to Thrombey's remote mansion to investigate the death. Blanc wishes to question everyone with a connection to the late, successful author, namely his obnoxious, privileged adult children (played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon) and their spouses (including Don Johnson and Toni Collette). Particular interest falls upon Harlan's esteemed caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), believed to be the last person to see him alive.

We happen to know that Marta is not telling the whole truth in her account for the cartoonishly Southern-accented Blanc. She actually mixed up the old-timer's pre-bedtime medications, giving him a big, deadly dosage of morphine and being unable to find the antidote. By slitting his own throat, Thrombey was sparing Marta culpability and her mother, an illegal immigrant, exposure and probable deportation.

The intrigue of the case is compounded by the subsequent reading of Harlan's will, which specifies that everything he owns is to be inherited exclusively by Marta. That turns Harlan's grating descendants against her, with the exception of "Ransom" Drysdale (Chris Evans), a bad boy grandson who already knew he was being written out of the will and is tickled to see the rest of his family snubbed too.

After the death of the wealthy writer Harlan Thrombey, no one in his large, obnoxious family (Katharine Langford, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell) is above suspicion.

Knives Out is a movie you don't want to say too much about. As a whodunnit, it of course relies upon plenty of twists and turns, all of which writer-director Johnson has gone out of his way to make sure you don't see coming. On the basis of sheer technique, Johnson gives us much to admire here. He's clearly enchanted by cinema and wants to share that love with everyone watching.

The results here, however, are decidedly mixed. For all the commendable craft and flair with which Johnson imbues the picture, his screenplay comes across as smug, self-satisfied, and very rarely amusing. When a film is driven by writing and the writing thinks itself to be far more clever than you do, you're in for a bumpy ride.
Johnson has very much tied the film to the present day and the script's efforts to be topical and political often feel like nails on a chalkboard. Terms like snowflake, SJW, and Nazi are thrown around and one gets the sense that Johnson was Alt-Tabbing between Final Draft and Twitter while writing this. (He has basically acknowledged as much.)

There's nothing inherently wrong with injecting some politics of the moment into storytelling. It just feels so forced, unnatural, and unwelcome here if you have as little an appetite for news and politics as I do. The topical material sets a comic tone that fell completely flat for me. With that not working, what enjoyment is there to get out of this cast of unlikable characters? Marta only has your sympathy by process of elimination and her hidden role in the author's death is not exactly endearing. Alas, the movie is easier to endure with her onscreen and not these brash relatives who suddenly resent her.

Which leads us back to Johnson and his craft. He does some fun things here, like casting aging, underappreciated film icons Frank Oz and M. Emmet Walsh in supporting roles and having "Murder, She Wrote" feature briefly. One has to respect Johnson for making this mid-sized movie exactly the way he wanted to instead of just jumping from Star Wars to whatever big budget tentpole wanted him most. Ultimately, Knives Out is a film that craves not your respect but your enjoyment and I just can't pretend it earned the latter.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood • Frozen II • Charlie's Angels • Waves • Marriage Story • The Irishman
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson: Star Wars: The Last Jedi • Looper
Clue • Murder Mystery
Daniel Craig: Spectre | Chris Evans: Snowpiercer | Jamie Lee Curtis: Halloween • Halloween (2018)
Ana de Armas: War Dogs • Hands of Stone • Blade Runner 2049 | Christopher Plummer: All the Money in the World • Up • Barrymore
Michael Shannon: Take Shelter • My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done • Premium Rush | Jaeden Martell: St. Vincent • It • The Book of Henry

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Reviewed November 27, 2019.



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