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Knives Out ••••

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Comedy/Crime/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: November 27, 2019



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we’ve reached a fork in the road. Do we review Knives Out, or not?

I have been looking forward to Agatha Christie’s take on James Bond. Let’s recap:

We meet Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who celebrates his 85th birthday in his mansion with family and friends. A few hours later, he is discovered dead, apparently a suicide. An anonymous person pays private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death. We learn that Harlan’s personal assistant, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), accidentally gave Harlan a lethal dose of morphine instead of his pain medication.

It turns out that, like George Washington, Marta cannot tell a lie. Well, she can but it makes her puke. We’re introduced to a cast of players – all of whom could benefit from Harlan’s death. Benoit interviews each trying to expose their motives. But in the end, it is Marta who we follow since everyone seems to think either she did it, or can help whomever did. Now, the game is afoot as Benoit is in a cat-and-mouse chase to find the killer.

Greg, with its cast of Hollywood luminaries, I was skeptical that Knives Out would work. It’s not just the risk that “too many cooks spoil the broth,” but also the truism that “too many egos need coddling.” I’m happy to report that my instincts were wrong here. Knives Out is a clever, semi-comedic mystery that serves up a satisfying whole that is as every bit as good as its luminous parts.

The first act of the story had me worried with its excessive exposition. Characters are doing a lot of describing of past events, and we all know that “show, don’t tell” is one of Moses’ Ten Commandments of storytelling. Knives Out somehow manages to work using the formula “show and tell”. Exposition is combined effectively with visual demonstration, and this hybrid formula is used with great alacrity and humor.

The key to this movie’s success lies in the decency and likeability of its two main heroes, Marta and Benoit Blanc. The Thrombey family consists mostly of selfish, petty, greedy little leeches, and they’re all suspects in the supposed murder of the family patriarch Harlan. There are just enough complications to keep most of us from figuring out the mystery, yet no real overcomplications. There is gravitas, of course, but enough campiness in the film to let us know that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I had a good time in this film – but I had trouble deciding if this were a parody of mysteries, or a mystery with some quirkiness. It felt like a combination of any Agatha Christie story and the 1985 movie Clue. The detective is supposed to be a southern version of Hercule Poirot (and Daniel Craig does a good job at that). But his character is unevenly portrayed first as brilliant (like Poirot), then bumbling (like Maxwell Smart), then unerringly observant (like Holmes). After a while I gave up trying to make sense of this character and just let the story unfold.

Likewise with the murder itself. At first it seems like Marta might be lying about her puking lie detector (it is a very strange plot device), but ultimately it is key to solving the mystery. And it turns out it wasn’t a murder but a suicide. But it was a murder attempt – but there was a double-switch so it was both a failed attempt and not a medical mistake by Marta. It’s a bit confusing and convoluted, which is an homage to the works of Christie and those of her genre.

Knives Out is a fun movie made in the spirit of Agatha Christie stories. It’s designed to enthrall us with the mysteries surrounding a complicated death along with a cornucopia of character tropes whose involvement in Harlan’s death beg to be unraveled. Despite the excessive exposition, I had fun watching Knives Out and admired its effortless stylistic inventiveness. I give the movie 4 Reels out of 5.

The mystery genre of moviemaking is not designed to craft a hero that goes on the traditional journey, although it is pretty clear that Marta’s life is forever changed by her experience as both murder suspect and chief beneficiary of Harlan’s will. Suffice to say that our detective Benoit Blanc is heroic in his relentless pursuit of the truth, but his journey is not a strong hero’s journey. It is more of a cognitive journey. Overall I give the heroic pairing of Marta and Benoit a mere 2 Heroes out of 5.

Regarding the message of the film, once again the mystery genre doesn’t exist to convey messages about life. Perhaps, if I’m forced to stretch things, we can say that the message is that we should lead a good life if we want any chance of inheriting a friend or relative’s wealth. Or perhaps the message is never trust what medicine is in a syringe. I award the film just 2 Message points out of 5.

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Agreed, Scott. Much in the way Clue was fun, so is Knives Out. But I think it lost some of its zing by not being more clearly humor or drama. I’m trying to imagine a sequel to this film with Benoit Blanc as the protagonist – but I can’t imagine it since Marta was such an important part of the detection. In that sense, this is also an atypical mystery story. I liked this film and it is above average – so I’ll give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Again, it’s not clear who the hero is. Marta appears to be the Point of View character for the majority of the film – yet it is Benoit Blanc who is the detective. And he appears to be on the scene much by accident. They aren’t exactly buddy heroes either as Benoit seems to be investigating everyone else while Marta falls into a damsel in distress mode. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes for this film.

Finally, there’s no message at all, really. It’s just a fun romp into the world of the one-percent with an immigrant worker in distress. I give it 1 out of 5 Message points.

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