Knives Out

Rating:

A STAB IN THE DARK

Main Cast: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas

Director: Rian Johnson

Tonight, the curtain goes up on the first performance of my new family holiday musical, Snakes On A Plane! It’s been an absolute joy getting this first rate material whipped into shape. I just know the audience of first nighters, who I can hear buzzing on the other side of the curtain, are going to have the time of their lives as they are treated to a spectacular, but heart warming story of a lady FBI agent flying a mob informant home to an old fashioned mountain Christmas together with her interior decorator mother and a chorus of dancing reptiles. I am particularly fond of my first act ballad “Let Me Be Your Windshield Viper” and the big second act moment where mother turns her flocking gun away from her Christmas trees to battle the snakes to the rousing “There’s Mother Flocking Snakes on the Mother Flocking Plane”. We’ve filmed a quick little video of the latter and posted it to social media. It’s already received thirty-seven hits on YouTube. I assume that meets the definition of going viral.

gold ornaments
Mr. James chose exactly the right number of ornaments for my gown!

Kim Dee and Mary Gee, my lovely seamstresses, have worked up some fabulous outfits for me from designs by Mr. James, a new costume design genius I’ve recently discovered and who will absolutely be giving Bob Mackie a run for his money. I’m just about to slip into my first gown now. Green and red sequins in a snowflake pattern with a sweetheart bodice and a train and with the cleverest little gold Christmas tree ornaments dangling from loops under the sleeves and around the waistline. The whole thing is topped with a white fox fur hat shaped like a snowball with a large sprig of sequined holly over each ear. It’s breathtaking and perfectly sets the tone for my down to business FBI agent with a difficult mission to perform. I have twelve changes throughout the show, each more spectacular than the last. I realize that changing clothes eight times during a cross country plane flight does stretch plausibility a bit so we’ve created a number of fantasy dream sequences to explain it away.

The snakes are warming up backstage and I simply have no time to watch a film prior to curtain time, but I do have just enough time to take a little schnapps (raspberry) and write about the film that I saw during my last off day. The hydraulics on the set were malfunctioning last weekend so we had to cancel a tech rehearsal while the stage hands fixed the fuselage and I used the opportunity to toddle off to the multiplex down the street to catch a film while waiting. My choice ended up being Knives Out, a new mystery film from writer/director Rian Johnson, best known for helming Star Wars Episode VIII, The Last Jedi a few years ago. Knives Out is about as far away as you can get from a galaxy far, far away and not what I would have expected as a follow up. It’s post modern riff on the classic puzzle murder mysteries of the mid-20th century as penned by such authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh.

Johnson obviously loves the tropes of the genre. Our setting is a large family home in rural Massachussets, a Victorian Gothic pile of red brick, turrets and mullioned windows with interior decoration that owes a great deal to the film version of Sleuth. It is inhabited by the wealthy and eccentric Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famous writer of classic mysteries. His family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday. They include his gorgon of a daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), her rakish husband (Don Johnson), and their wastrel son (Chris Evans). There is also a weakling son (Michael Shannon), his prim wife (Riki Lindhome) and their budding Nazi of a teen (Jaeden Martell). A new age guru widowed daughter in law (Toni Colette) with a social justice warrior daughter (Katherine Langford) and Harlan’s improbably aged mother (K Callan) complete the family circle. Then there are a couple of domestics to round out the suspects: a bad tempered house keeper (Edi Patterson) and the only good soul in the bunch, Harlan’s nurse companion, a South American immigrant with an easy charm and an accessible medical bag (Ana de Armas). After the party, Harlan goes up to bed together with his nurse who leaves somewhat later. In the morning, he is found with his throat slit, an apparent suicide or is it murder?

Enter the police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) who are accompanied by ‘the last of the gentleman private detectives’, Mr. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who has been mysteriously hired with an anonymous bundle of cash to look into the matter. We get intercut interviews with the various suspects, traipsing around the house looking for clues, plenty of red herrings, and, in the words of one of the characters “the world’s stupidest car chase” before all is revealed and the guilty party is led away in handcuffs and the rest of the characters move on to the lives that karma and their patriarch have decreed.

There is much to like in Knives Out. Rian Johnson obviously has great affection for the classic whodunit puzzle mysteries and the whole plot is structured like an Agatha Christie country house murder. There are nods to a number of her titles in terms of plot moments, set dressing, and character motivations and, like her best titles such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, it has the enclosed setting and cast of characters, each with a juicy motive for getting daddy out of the way. The actors are also having a ball. Jamie Lee Curtis radiates a fierce intensity in her scenes that make you well believe she’d have no problem knifing any number of family members. As her husband, Don Johnson gives his best performance in years, playing off his co-stars with any number of small moments. Toni Collette and Chris Evans also turn in good work with Mr. Evans moving far away from his recent Marvel Universe persona. He makes a great cad.

Daniel Craig has the pivotal role. He’s Hercule Poirot crossed with Lord Peter Wimsey and cursed with a highly improbable Foghorn Leghorn Kentucky Colonel accent. I’m not sure if that was his choice or Johnson’s and, while irritating and unnerving at first, it grew on me as the film progressed and we get some sense of the complicated quirks behind the character. I think my favorite moment is when he’s sitting in a car with his earbuds singing along to Losing My Mind from Follies. It’s a complete non-sequitur and so odd, that it helps ground the somewhat heightened reality of the screenplay (at times bordering on farce) in a more complicated world. I can see a whole series of films with the character taking on classic mystery forms. The other lead role is that of the saintly nurse Marta. Ms. De Armas finds just enough goofy humor in the part to keep it from being a cloying annoyance.

If Knives Out has one major fault, it’s that it starts out far too slowly and the first hour or so, which is predominantly exposition, drags. In some ways, it feels more like a stage property than a film property until the plot kicks up a notch in the second hour and we’re allowed to venture outside the confines of the family manse. I’m not sure how to fix that particular issue and it’s a bit of an issue with the genre as a whole. Perhaps if Johnson had used a more mobile camera to keep things moving but police interviews are just static by nature.

By all means, take in a matinee. They don’t make a lot of classic whodunnits these days and Knives Out is superior to most.

Circle of knives. Upset go game. Trick window. Nana standing sentry. Gratuitous vomiting. Tell tale blood stain. Frank Oz as family lawyer. Deserted dry cleaners. Undocumented immigrant.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

Image by mvstang from Pixabay

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