Knives Out

My wife and I agree on about 90% of the movies we see. A few of our big disagreements were early when we started dating, and she made me watch Bridget Jones’ Diary. I disliked it. I made her watch Step Brothers. She hated it (although I did catch her laughing hard a few times). Another movie I made her watch, which I think is brilliant and underrated, is Brick. It’s about a high school kid (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. He narrates the film as if it’s a noir picture from the early ‘60s.

Writer/director Rian Johnson did that film early in his career. He is probably more well known now for his Star Wars picture. Now, I can understand my wife not appreciating the juvenile hijinx of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers, but her not enjoying the brilliance of Brick…is unacceptable. 

Johnson now tackles the whodunnit genre, in a film that would make Agatha Christie smile. And it’s the best ensemble cast you’ll see in a picture all year. It’s got all the twists you’d expect, but will surprise you with the irreverent humor.

Things go bad for Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) on his 85th birthday. He’s having fights with various members of his family, and he’ll end up dead by the end of the evening. Was it suicide or murder? 

Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield, who blew me away in Sorry To Bother You and impressed me in the upcoming Uncut Gems) is investigating the case with Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), who is a big fan of Thrombey’s murder mystery books. There’s a PI named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). He sits in the back of the room flipping coins or hitting piano keys. Eventually he starts talking, making accusations, and putting some pieces of the puzzle together.

The cast of characters (or suspects) include the snobby, eldest daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis). It was fun seeing her onstage at CinemaCon this year with newcomer Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), who plays Harlan’s caretaker/nurse, and is loved by the entire family.

Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda, and he was told at the party by Thrombey that he’s going to expose his cheating.

Thormbey also calls his son Ransom (Chris Evans) into a room to tell him he’s going to be out of the will.

The other son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs Dad’s publishing company, but he keeps butting heads with Thrombey over movie rights to his books. That’s lead to his being dismissed from that position. 

Walt’s son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) does the usual teen thing — types away on his phone while others are engaged in conversation. We find out he’s an alt-right troll on various websites, and he even calls the nurse a “dirty anchor baby” at one point in the movie (that scene, along with about 5 others, made me laugh out loud).

Daughter Joni is played by Toni Collette, who is easily one of the 10 best actresses working today. Her facial expressions are always right on point, and she really conveys so many different emotions with the tone of her voice. I loved watching this person, who is a self-help guru, dancing with reckless abandon to Roxy Music’s “More Than This.”

The soundtrack gets credit for also playing the obscure Spirit song “Animal Zoo” (from the underrated album The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus). We also got some Gordon Lightfoot and Rolling Stones. Composer Nathan Johnson (the director’s cousin) also provided a great score (one piece reminded me of Schubert). A few times it’s bombastic in just the right scenes to add to the tension.

Normally in films, I don’t try to figure out who the killer is. In this movie, it’s slightly different, because you aren’t trying to figure out who the killer is. Early on, the movie shows you what has happened. Your mind just starts playing tricks on you, because you know what filmmakers do. So that still has the fun of you trying to figure stuff out. And with interesting characters and humorous dialogue, you’ll have a blast.

Watching Blanc question these family members, and how their tales are spun, is a lot of fun. Each of them realize that if they’re considered a suspect, it might hurt them with the inheritance. 

So we see two different versions of the stories. The yarn they spin to the detective, and what really happened with their father.

There are subtle jokes that work brilliantly. One is that every time the nurse is talked about, a family member mentions a different South American country they think she’s from. Another time there’s a joke about the investigation being a lot like the game Clue. The film pokes fun at a few other tropes as well.

It’s interesting how a big reveal early on, makes you wonder if this is even a whodunnit. It really feels like a murder mystery where it’s not so much that, but a movie where we’re rooting for characters to get away with things because we like them.

Johnson writes a great script, that not only has some gallows humor but when it incorporates things like a family fighting about Donald Trump — they don’t make Don Johnson’s Republican character, merely a buffoon for supporting what’s going on to stop illegal immigrants at the border. It feels like a real political debate that an intelligent family is going to be having at Thanksgiving (when the film opens).

Daniel Craig, who surprised me with his accent in Logan Lucky, does a Foghorn Leghorn, Southern drawl that’s a hoot. Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked if this was a serious drama and not the kind of fun, murder mystery, wacky thing we had going here. In a picture like this, we don’t mind characters being a bit over-the-top as they chew scenery. It’s why Jamie Lee Curtis as a tough businesswoman, works. It’s why Collette as a goofy, free-spirit, self-help type who has a company called “Phlem” or “Phlam”…works (she’ll make you think of Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop).

Michael Shannon, who has long been a favorite of mine, is smartly underused here. He has an element of danger about him, but I love that this is a true ensemble piece, and they don’t go out of their way to make him a bigger, more intimidating piece of the puzzle. He does have one scene where he’s a bit scary, and it was perfectly executed for not going over the top. He implies just enough to make you worried. 

Because 92.7% of all movies today have barfing scenes, this picture is no exception. Except that the way they do it here, is rather comical. One character vomits every time she tells a lie, and once this comes out (no pun intended), she’s interrogated often.

As a cigar lover, it was fun to see Craig smoke the longest cigar I’ve ever seen, and Shannon light up a stogie on the porch at midnight (nothing says guilty like that).

I want to see this movie nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar, as well as nods for production design (David Crank), and costume designer Jenny Eagan. I was worried at first because the movie poster showed the cast wearing wacky, colorful suits that would’ve been too comical. In the film what they wore, and the house they were in, were like characters all their own.

Folks, this is the type of fun you should have every time you spend your hard-earned money on a movie. You’ll love every second of it. It’s one of my favorites of the year.

The knives you have out for carving the turkey…can be placed in the sink, and the family should brave the bad weather, and see this movie. It’s a blast.

4 ½ stars out of 5.

 

 

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