Food for the Soul: Knives Out!

“Ransom Drysdale: What is this? CSI: KFC?”
A line from Knives Out!

By Nina Heyn- Your Culture Scout

Our streaming devices are groaning under the weight of choices – movies, seasons of shows, mini-series, documentaries and so on. So many movies, so little time. This is one of the reasons many good dramas or even action films have recently faltered at the box office. Audiences leave home for something spectacular or unique but otherwise, they may not choose to see a movie in a theater. Once in a while comes a movie that is not a creature feature (no beasts, mutants, aliens or any other CGI beings) but it still is fun to see in a theater. Knives Out! is such a movie. If you want to see a murder mystery that has a great cast but clocks at 130 minutes instead an 8-episode season – this may be a movie for you.

The concept of this movie seems to be “how to make an Agatha Christie-style story of who is the murderer in a house full of suspects,” but also “how to make it relevant for contemporary audiences.” It starts traditionally with a locked house and group of suspects. A very nimble cast of actors gets added. A script that assumes the audiences are as smart as filmmakers gets played. And voilà – here is the smart comedy for the holidays!

A numerous but odious family of a famous novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) gathers for his 85th birthday, only to have the cantankerous despot die mysteriously after having quarreled with every one of them. Detective Benoit Blanc is called in. In this role Daniel Craig (soon to be James Bond again in February’s 25th edition of the spy franchise) has the weirdest southern accent but a flair of detection worthy of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes rolled into one. Since there is also a bossy daughter who henpecks her cheating husband (priceless Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson), a wastrel grandson (Chris Evans, also known sometimes as Captain America), a weak son (Michael Shannon), a scheming daughter-in-law (Toni Colette), plus a sinister housekeeper, and a nurse who had the best opportunity to off the senior, there is no lack of suspects. Despite this parade of colorful characters, and entertaining narrative tricks (flashbacks, and different versions of events, Rashomon-style), the story would a be conventional whodunit if not for the fact that half way through the movie, the murder mystery morphs into a damsel-in-distress story and the old formula gets one intelligent twist after another.

The director Rian Johnson (his previous movie was Star Wars VIII-The Last Jedi so he knows a thing or two about action filmmaking) decided to update the genre for 2019. Instead of having a bland chit chat after dinner, the Thrombey family has a lively debate about migrant children detention – you cannot get more current affairs than that. Johnson is not above a straight visual nod to fans of streamed entertainment all over the world. The central art (?) piece in Harlan’s living room is a familiar round arrangement of blades but in this movie it is a gourmet cuisine version of the Iron Throne that various, ill-meaning members of the family are trying to occupy. After the patriarch’s untimely demise, the attention of both the family and detective Blanc focuses on Marta, Harlan’s devoted nurse and a Latin American immigrant (the running gag is that the self-absorbed family members never bothered to find out the actual country their employee comes from). Marta’s character (doe-eyed but steely-determined Ana de Armas) has the largest dramatic arc – from a virtuous but naïve hired help, to a mover and shaker of the investigation, and finally to a showdown of virtue versus greed.

Amidst the hard-hitting dramas of the Oscar season and holiday family movies, its’ good to find a movie that takes an old Hollywood format and provides enough fun plot twists and 21st century updates to make it a smart entertainment.

Check it Out!