By Avi Gupta (India, Uttar Pradesh)
What’s better than a classic whodunit? A who-donut. Or rather, a who-donut hole. Get it?
Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s love-letter to the Agatha Christie era of movies is like a breath of fresh air, aimed at reinvigorating the waning murder-mystery genre, through sheer brilliance in direction, style, and a subversion of subversions.
The past decade saw the meteoric rise of the superhero fantasy genre – it emerged as the box office be-all end-all ‘formula’, if we dare say so. Notwithstanding this current cinematic zeitgeist, Johnson went ahead with his 2010 pipe-dream of a mystery thriller. It becomes an even more apparent and risky gamble, when you factor in Johnson’s highly polarizing recent space-opera, The Last Jedi (2017). Does the gamble pay off?
Right off the bat, the first shots of the film are a triumph in world-building and juxtaposition: an eerie fog-laden mansion, with blaring orchestral music in the background, immediately demand your attention – something’s wrong here. The whole environ is reminiscent of a quintessential murder-thriller from the past century. However, the following idiosyncratic shot of a coffee mug with the plucky words ‘My house, My rules, My coffee’, injects the viewer with a somewhat guarded irreverence.
Harlan Thrombey (played by a jovial Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of the wealthy Thrombey family, has just been found dead, and all evidence summarily points to a suicide. There is an investigation, and then there is an after-investigation, contrived by the film’s voice of rationality – the legendary detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Bond, I mean James Craig … wait). He’s a haphazard mix of Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and weirdly enough, Calvin Candie from Django Unchained – a character caricature that shouldn’t work but totally does. Blanc was delivered a news story about the suicide and an envelope of money anonymously – which is why he suspects foul play.
The film then pulls out its biggest guns – a star-studded cast, through a series of introductions as part of Blanc’s investigation. There are no cookie-cutter helping characters here – Johnson leads us to believe any one of the family members could have ‘committed’ the ‘suicide’. There’s Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s eldest daughter; Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson); Harlan’s son Walter (Michael Shannon); Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and Harlan’s reckless grandson who’s not fully introduced until well into the second act, Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Chris America … wait); and a smattering of other characters, each of them justified with their own moments in the limelight.
The emotional center of the movie is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, a revelation in this role), Harlan’s nurse and confidant.
With the pieces set and the minds of the viewers ready to be hit with betrayals and euphoria, the setting promises to be a fun romp, but nothing we haven’t seen before. And this is exactly where the Johnson grabs you by the cerebrum, and flips the situation on its head (no pun intended). At around the 45-minute mark, the viewer is left flabbergasted by the unfolding events – a freshman would sincerely wonder whether the movie had ended.
As we come to terms with the subversion, we’re left confused and with an unsettling equilibrium – now what? The scope of twists and turns seems to be nullified, and the viewer feels all the wiser for it. Alas, we’re all sitting ducks in Johnson’s palm. What follows is a subversion of the subversion – the breath of fresh air I was talking about.
Although the setting of the movie feels insulated from the rest of the world, there is enough social commentary for the observant spectator. From everyone telling ‘part of the family’ Marta about how they were outvoted on inviting her to the funeral, to everyone misremembering her home country, you cringe at the disposition of the ‘benevolent’ Thrombeys.
Heart-warmingly enough, our point-of-contact Marta’s greatest assets are her simplicity and honesty. Even though this honesty takes the form of a Pinocchio-esque response. Without giving out any spoilers, suffice it to say that blood is not the only bodily fluid gushing out here.
The score, composed by Johnson’s brother Nathan, dances in tandem with the plot. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s composition is spot on – in several shots you see Harlan watching over helplessly from paintings, as if disillusioned with his vulture-like family members; handheld shots put you right in Marta’s frame of reference and her stupefaction. Kudos to Editor Bob Duscay, who expertly matches chronologically-distinct conversations and actions. And a word of praise to Production Designer David Crank, who makes the stately manor feel like a Cluedo board come to life. Buoyed by droll dialogue, quick-witted repartee and Johnson’s firm grip on the story, the film ticks boxes you didn’t know needed to be ticked in this genre.
Tied together beautifully, Johnson runs a tight ship. There’s hardly a useless shot, and you discover something new on every viewing. For instance, follow the baseball from Harlan’s study closely as it is thrown, caught and retrieved by characters, to finally lead to a somewhat low-key revelation – it’s great fun to watch nonetheless.
What works for Knives Out is simultaneously difficult to replicate and easy to pinpoint. Perchance that is the reason why so few films today elicit such a response from critics and casual viewers alike.
It’s a rarity these days to witness a true bafflement of the mind via this medium. The donut-hole, about which Blanc goes on at length – is the perfect allegory for this movie. What’s more, the elegant display of knives metaphorically and physically points to the donut hole staring us in the face – which is ultimately filled by Blanc’s heady deductions.
Knives out is a resounding success, a definite crowd-pleaser, an Oscar-favourite, and a critic’s delight.
Overall, a skillful piece of film-making, not to be missed.
Extra: Due to the success of Knives Out, Lionsgate announced that a sequel was officially approved.
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