Skip to main content

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out
(2019)

(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

Craig is having fun here as “CSI KFC”, though, and he’s the most entertaining part of the picture, despite Johnson coming up short in providing really impressive investigative prowess, deductive speechifying or startling reveals. Johnson has, however, decided on a distinctive way into this whodunnit fiction, albeit, I’m unconvinced it was necessarily the deftest choice when it comes to servicing a mystery narrative; the writer-director’s reach does rather tend to exceed his grasp when it comes to impressing upon us his ingenuity. He opts to turn the mystery around, at least in part, by showing early on how Christopher Plummer’s victim, family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (a little too smugly meta as a famous mystery novelist), meets his end, and in so doing establishes the culpability, or lack thereof, of Ana de Armas’ Marta Cabrera, his trusted nurse. You know something else must be in the mix, so the smarts of Benoit, or lack thereof, are part and parcel of the piece’s unfolding.

Where Johnson shoots himself in the foot is that he never really convinces us that Benoit is formidable. Craig thinks he is, and makes him likably sure of himself and entirely unflappable, but he should be driving a degree of tension – certainly if Johnson is, as he claims, any kind of student of Christie – and for the most part, he doesn’t. Part of this is down to the way Johnson either avoids or fails to pay due diligence to the round of suspects. He can’t make the murder quite slippery enough, doesn’t spend sufficient time casting the net of suspects wider through further suspicions. Having shown the most salient facts early on, he doesn’t then offer enough sleights and twists and red herrings to justify that choice.

The children – Michael Shannon’s Walt, Toni Collette’s Joni and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Linda, along with various related parties including Don Johnson’s son-in-law Richard and Chris Evans’ vulgar grandson Ransom – are all scrupulously motivated, but because of the manner in which Johnson elects to play his game, they’re largely relegated to background figures following the initial round of interviews. When they do otherwise, namely in Evans’ case, it’s a signal of shutting down the potentials rather than broadening the canvas, pushing the proceedings more into a Joe Eszterhas direction than a Christie one. Which only serves to emphasise that Benoit isn’t a detective to marvel at – it’s even down to Marta that Ransom’s confession is secured.

And I think it’s here that Johnson most trips himself up. He has said “I think any time you sit down to write something you better have something on your mind, something that you’re, for lack of a better way of saying, a little angry about” which tells you all you need to know about why The Last Jedi received the backlash it did, and why Johnson’s sensibility might not have been the best one to call on unexpurgated, all things considered (but hey, given his preceding filmography, I wouldn’t have twigged that was making him tick, so go figure). I bet Johnson would claim, in addition to his other claims about her, that if Christie were writing today, she too would have something, for lack of a better way of saying, to be a little angry about.

I don’t think he’s especially angry about Jaeden Martell’s “alt-right troll dipshit” grandson Jacob (who is, despite Johnson’s pathological disingenuousness when pressed on the subject, clearly a response to his “incel” critics). That’s just an incidental swipe. He’s clearly exercised by all things Trumpian, however, in particular immigration and attitudes thereto, whereby you’d have to be wearing blinkers not to receive it as a message. When this is germane to the telling, it’s effective, but Johnson can’t resist the oversell. So there’s the portrayal of the spoiled, privileged, elite family, where even those who aren’t pro-Trump are inherently ugly inside and treat Marta like a skivvy. A skivvy who comes from, variously, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil, depending on which Thrombey you ask (Johnson’s sense of humour, despite his evident earnestness of message, appears not to have gone down well with some critics). Which is congruent, to a greater or less extent, with the canvas Johnson is weaving, meshing to the family’s indignance that Marta should be granted Harlan’s entire fortune, house, the whole kit and caboodle.

The problem comes from Johnson’s decision that Marta is purer than the driven snow, not just to the extent of revealing early in the proceedings – in what is surely a fundamental no-no to the good mystery writer and therefore evidence that Johnson is only paying lip service to his Christie adoration – that she is not the perpetrator, but also in a central, ludicrous character device that is played both for laughs and as a deductive tool. Marta is subject to “a regurgitative reaction to mistruth” meaning she pukes if she’s forced to lie about anything. 

Now, I’m doubtful even Johnson would claim that, if Christie were alive today, she’d have her suspects throwing up all over each other, Poirot solving his cases knee deep in vomit, but who knows what he’s capable of. It’s not only a crude device, used for crude effect – if you’re twelve, eliciting a confession by rolfing over the antagonist is probably the best thing ever. If you’re twelve – but it’s a cheap shot that illustrates all Johnson really thinks of Marta is as a doe-eyed cypher, a holier than holy avatar, rather than as a person in her own right. After all, the opposite to someone, an immigrant, who cannot deceive is a compulsive liar… like the wall-building patriot in the White House? Which means Johnson is effectively using the entire character as a cheap shot.

That’s unfortunate in many respects. It means Johnson is doubling down on the things he didn’t handle so well in The Last Jedi. It means de Armas – who is really good, so much so, she manages to mask her screenwriter’s deficiencies for much of the time – is rudely short-changed. Most of all, it means, in Johnson’s attempts to make a statement, he undermines his narrative. The twist that Ransom tried to off grandpa is rock solid, but Johnson fundamentally doesn’t understand the idea of using subtext or underlying theme to support the story. It’s foregrounding or nothing for him. Like Evans, his blunder leaves him under a sea of chunder.

He has cast his movie beautifully, though, and crucially, he’s a fine director on top of that. Lakeith Stanfield isn’t especially well used, even if he does point out “the dumbest car chase of all time”, but Frank Oz is perfect in a cameo as Harlan’s lawyer. And it’s nice to see M Emmet Walsh (I’ll be totally honest and admit I wasn’t even sure he was still with us). Evans is a lot of fun (although all his best bits are in the trailers). Most of everyone else leaves you wanting more, though. Generally, I get less and less convinced of Johnson as time wears on. He never quite sticks the landing. I thought Brick was pretty much a perfect pastiche – I probably shouldn’t revisit it – but his skill as a director is increasingly undermined by his unevenness as a writer (the biggest problem among the current generation of prolific writer-directors tends to be the writer part). Knives Out might have been a classic murder mystery if he didn’t keep getting in his own way.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).