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3 ½ (out of 4)
Rian Johnson’s career is the real mystery. Arriving after a competently thorny neo-noir debut (Brick), a half-baked comedy caper (The Brothers Bloom), some solid sci-fi (Looper) and what can only be described as the most detestable Star Wars sequel you could possibly dream up (Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, in case you forgot), Knives Out is what you could call his mischievous masterpiece. It's the movie he’s clearly been itching to get to, deserving of all the hype since this past TIFF and one of the most emphatically, heartily entertaining films in years.
Whereas his snide teasing and frivolous misdirection left a spurious space where The Last Jedi’s supposed soul and sophistication is, Knives Out merrily frolics through your expectations in a way that invigorates Johnson’s self-branded whodunit genre-disassembly. The writer-director finds plenty of room within the Thrombey Mansion to administer his shrewd formal finesse – by the end of Act 1 Knives Out has already become its own enterprising creative item despite copious influences. With the likes of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle too obvious to mention, more relevantly this film is something like the crass Americanized companion to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. However Knives Out is also comprised of timeless dramatic irony and substantial suspense, reaching back to the voluptuous anxiety of seminal noir classics such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity or Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window.
Daniel Craig’s magnificent lead performance as Detective Benoit Blanc crowns an imposing cast. In a role reminiscent of the empirical investigative work of, say, Dial M for Murder, Knives Out demonstrates the same anticipatory unease of many a Hitchcock flick. Johnson’s idea of the spellbinding, unshakably suave private snoop is a fine riff on the Philip Marlowe’s and Hercule Poirot’s of the past. “This machine, unerringly, arrives at the truth,” and so go many of Craig's southern-baked soliloquies, each as smooth and sharp as Tennessee Whiskey. Ana de Armas is the film’s emotional ballast and her affect makes for a sympathetic protagonist and ensures some refinement in the conspicuous politics.
The remainder of the sterling ensemble includes Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer and Don Johnson, all who conform to Johnson’s cognizant premise without gleefully slipping into mugging stereotypes. As a reflection of our culture’s dread of holiday discord, the underpinnings of national divide are appropriate but will get the Right riled up for spitting in the face of anti-immigration rhetoric. But the fiscal journey of the Thrombey children is about the hypocrisy of entitlement and how little self-sufficiency can be expected of privileged, opportunistic leeches. Essentially Knives Out supposes karma rewards nature’s kinder characters; the upper class comeuppance and ultimate meritocratic sentiment is a fine notion.
From the dexterous dolly shots to the mansion's sublime mise-en-scène, Johnson’s airtight picture is able to serve all audiences equally with admirable auteur craftwork as well as timely cheek. The vivid characters sell the design of the ethical debates and borderline asinine revelations of the final admissions – Johnson’s script dances down the tightrope of cleverness, wobbling only slightly in the last steps over the vacuum of convolution. If the dialogue weren’t so savory, or the editing so poetic or the performances so refreshing, one slip-up could have spoiled the whole stew – is a minor plot hole of much consequence in the scope of such cunning storytelling?
In revisits I’m sure the gratification of the film’s composition – in addition to Johnson’s intention for audiences to find themselves debating, dissenting or otherwise disagreeing – will be its own reward. In the face of box office prosperity a sequel has been ordered for Detective Blanc’s further cases – Craig is so delectably compelling to observe in action, so I'm on board no matter what.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Invisible Man
and overdue takes on
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice