Saturday, February 8, 2020

Knives Out (2019) review

    The mystery novel is something that has always had a rather large air of classicism to it, that I've often felt has been lost somewhat in imitation. Agatha Christie was a woman of means herself but part of the fun of her novels was the fact the wealthy were exposed as a bunch of cheating, lying, backstabbing assholes. Which was true to the life of the time period and today, I say as someone who grew up as part of the Country Club set before my family went from multi-millionaires to middle-class thanks to a certain 2008 Financial Crisis. People remember the big houses and quirky personalities but forgot the fact that they were meant to parody the Ruling ClassTM.

Game of Thrones-esque chair of knives.
    Knives Out is a woke movie that, unfortunately, wears its white liberalism on its sleeve while simultaneously also engaging in some condescending compassion as well as unintentional racism. This lowered my score of the movie somewhat but I admit that I still enjoyed its entertaining mystery as well as colorful cast of characters. It may read very much like a rich white man calling out rich white men (and women) ala Zach Snyder's Sucker Punch but the solid performances as well as great writing help rescue the story from mediocrity. Did I mention it's by Rian Johnson, my archenemy since The Last Jedi? Well, he should stick to mystery stories right now as the references to Clue (1985) fully justify this movies existence alone. I love that film.

Chris Evans does a remarkably effective sleazy performance.
   The premise is Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), millionaire mystery writer, dies mysteriously and his family soon enters into his huge house. The Thrombey family is a mixture of conservative uber-rich and bourgeois bohemiams. It's the kind of family where one can be extraordinarily racist while thinking being racist is the worst thing you can be called. While a left-leaning anarchist lunatic in real life, I appreciated Rian Johnson taking pot shots at the Left side of the class divide as well as the right.

    While Don Johnson plays a smarmy rich white guy who hates illegals, we have Toni Collette playing a transparent parody of Gwyneth Paltrow who has made her "fortune" selling snake oil wellness supplements that appeal to rich New Age West Coasters. While Don Johnson has an Alt-Right troll as a son, Toni has a liberal activist daughter who has never had to work a day in her life. The kind of person, a generation or two earlier, would have paid well for a Che Guevera t-shirt.

Daniel Craig does an incredible Southern Poirot parody.
    The thing is that I grew up among the super-rich and know this is not a parody so much as just a straight depiction of how the uber-wealthy are completely divorced from reality. Well, not even the uber-wealthy. They're part of the 1% but not the 1% of the 1% like the Bruce Wayes and Lex Luthors of the world. This is a weird distinction to make but Harlan's fortune is about sixty million dollars and while that is a huge amount of money, what it really means is that it's enough to pay for all these spoiled rotten jackasses and their hobbies masquerading as businesses but not so much that they won't be out in the cold if Harlan ever cuts them off. He's the sole source of the money and his death means whoever inherits the fortune becomes the new family patriarch/matriarch. Divided among them, even 60 million will go fast because they are house cats who'd never survive in the wild.

    Contrasting to this collection of not-so-different jerks who remind me far too much of a bunch of people I knrew growing up is Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's live-in nurse has become his surrogate daughter, probably because she takes care of him and she's not objectively terrible. Marta is a beautiful saint and hard-working innocent who literally throws up when forced to lie. Ana de Armas is charismatic enough that the somewhat flat character is still a joy to watch, especially when trying to befuddle both the Thrombey family as well as police investigators.

Marta has a nice doe-eyed look even if she's a bit 1-dimensional.
    I think the movie is overly forgiving toward Harlan, treating him as a noble man who wants what's best for his ungrateful genetically related sponges. I believe Willy Wonka said it best that if you wonder how a child (or adult) becomes a spoiled waste of space then you should blame the parents. Harlan is financially abusive and emotionally manipulative but the movie treats him like a saint. Frankly, he seems to be the worst of the lot as his only response to his awful family is to cut them off.

    While I harp on the classicism on display in the film and that it engages in a "both sides"-esque duality, I think they really do nail the fact that they're all a bunch of people who have been warped by their privilege. His eldest daughter, Linda (Jaime Lee Curtis), is the most successful of them and believes she's self-made but did it with a million dollar loan. Gee, can't imagine who that's a joke about. However, he's also employed his son, Walt (Michael Shannon), for years while constantly shutting down every idea he's ever had then summarily firing him for "his own good." Even the seemingly sympathetic and beautiful liberal college student Meg (Katherine Langford) has spent 400K on tuition with no sign she's close to getting her degree or that it's in anything useful.

A truly all-star cast.
  The real star of the show is Daniel Craig's character, Benoit Blanc, who is a Southern gentleman detective who fulfills the Hercule Poroit role. A genius and master detective, he immediately figures out every single member of the family is hiding something terrible as well as has motive for murder, but needs to fish out the clues as a result. I found his character great even if I genuinely hate his accent and think he should have kept in Logan Lucky. I'm actually interested in seeing another movie starring this character despite how ridiculous the character sometimes was.

    In conclusion, this is a solid movie and entertaining from beginning to end. Unfortunately, I feel like its politics are a bit less enlightened than it thinks. I do think that the characters are wonderfully trashy (in the way only the spoiled elite can be) and true-to-life, though. I would have liked a more nuanced Marta and less hammy Daniel Craig but it was a great film that I still enjoyed. It's not as good as Murder on the Orient Express but it was a fine comedy as well as a good whodunit.


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