Underneath my yellow skin

Knives Out (two reviews)–part one

I heard tell of this movie called Knives Out by Rian Johnson, an Amazon original. All the rave reviews about how incredible it was. All I knew was it was an ensemble cast murder mystery, which should be up my alley. Somewhat. I LOVE Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot with all my heart despite knowing how problematic the books are. I’ve read each of them at least three times and up to dozens. On the other hand, while I adore David Suchet’s depiction of Poirot and think Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson, and Pauline Moran are incredible as Captain Hastings, Chief/Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon, I have to think of them as a completely different thing than the books.

Anyway. This is my longwinded way of saying that I watched he movie. Against my will, actually, since I tend not to like movies that other people rave about. But, I kept hearing how fantastic it was, and I decided what the hell. I didn’t know much about it except that it was an ensemble cast with Daniel Craig in it.

I will tell you how I felt about it, and I will do it in two different ways. The first is the glossy review I’d write if it was for a publication of repute. The second will be my brutally honest opinion that I wouldn’t tell anyone because I’m always wary about how my weird my opinions are. In addition, I know how beloved this movie is, and, well….Yeah. First up:

Glossy Review:

Knives Out is a madcap dark comedy murder mystery movie with an outstanding ensemble cast in the vein of Agatha Christie’s most popular novels/adaptations. The production value is slick, and you’re never given a moment to breathe.

Jamie Lee Curtis reaches the dizzying heights of ACTING as she chomps through the scenery with delightful ease. She’s the no-nonsense ballsy businesswoman who runs a successful real estate business–with a million dollar loan from her father. Who, by the way, is portrayed by the wonderful Christopher Plummer, mostly in flashbacks. He portrays the wildly successful author, Harlan Thrombey, who is worth billions.

The rest of the family is just as wacky as you would expect in a movie like this. Don Johnson (Richard) as the foul-mouthed Trump-apologist whose action do not match up with his words and is the husband of Linda  (JLC). Michael Shannon (Walt) as the younger son of Harlan who hasn’t done anything with his life other than have a sinecure position in his father’s publishing house. His wife, Donna (played by Riki Lindhome, one half of the hilarious Garfunkel and Oates), is an uptight prig who is racist but won’t admit it to herself. Their son is the only character who is really poorly written as a cardboard cutout internet alt-right troll. He even spits out the phrase ‘anchor baby’ without the slightest bit of irony. Jaeden Martell does his best and looks appropriately creepy, but he has very little to work with.

Daniel Craig as the Poirot-like role of Benoit Blanc (which is a fantastic name) is having a grand old time with his over-the-top Southern drawl, and he even utters the words, ‘the game’s afoot’ at least once while investigating. Chris Evans as the loathsome and debauched grandson of Harlan, son of Linda and Richard, Ransom (his name, well, middle name but what he goes by except to the help) is a goddamn revelation in this role. Toni Collette is an absolute delight as Joni, the daughter-in-law who is stealing money from her father-in-law and seems to be a poke at Gwyneth Paltrow. Katherine Langford acts her heart out in the role of her daughter, Meg, who is a social justice warrior cartoon, but very dependent upon the family teat.

There are many ins and outs, twists and turns, and you might get whiplash because your head is going back and forth so fast and so furious. The pacing is such that you’re probably not going to slow down and think about what is actually happening, and that is to the movie’s benefit. There are plot holes and leaps of logic that don’t hold up in direct sunlight, so it’s best not to think about it.

This is a summer blockbuster movie all gussied up with slick angles and a thousand cuts of the knife (see what I did there?). There is no there there no matter how much Rian Johnson, the director, wants to pretend there is more to it than there is. Even the political aspect that is thrown in is more for show than for anything else, even though it’s presumably one of the cornerstones of the movie.

There is nothing new in this movie and it’s immensely disposable. The strength of it is the all-star cast who mostly give top-notched if over-the-top portrayals of very stereotypical roles. The one person I haven’t mentioned is Marta Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas, who is one of the main characters. Most of her job is to stand around looking tremulously at the camera with tears in her eyes. She does it well enough, but the role is highly limiting. That’s pretty much how I would describe the movie in general–it’s acted well enough, but everything is so limiting.

Again, that’s the polite review. Here is my unfiltered opinion of the movie, much of which evolved in real time.

Brutally Honest Review:

Within seconds of starting the movie, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I stan for Jamie Lee Curtis and she was chewing up all the scenery with zest and vigor, but the scenery being chewed itself was so stodgy. My sense of unease increased with each monologue being hurled at me because the writing was just so cringe-worthy. Don’t get me wrong. The casting is stellar. Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, and Michael Shannon do the heavy lifting, and it’s clear that they are having a grand old time emoting all over the place.

Daniel Craig is clearly having fun with his role, and I’m enjoying his good ol’ boy schtick, even though his Southern accent is more miss than hit. He is supposed to be the Poirot of the movie, though he’s more like Inspector Clouseau. Does he know more than he’s letting on or is he really that bumbling? It’s obvious the movie wants you to dither over it, but the movie wouldn’t make any sense if it were the latter and not the former especially with the–let’s leave that for now.

First of all, I had a hard time dealing with the constant cutaways and the pacing of the movie. It’s relentless, and it made me emotionally tired. I also felt like Rian Johnson, the director, was trying to hide all the flaws of the movie by moving everything at a breakneck pace. I realize he was doing an homage to old timey whodunnits, but he made the fatal mistake of not committing to one style or the other. Is it a madcap comedy? Yes. Is it a star-studded ensemble glitz and glam movie? Yes. Is it a dark look into the psychology of humans? Well, it wanted to be. It is a satire skewering the rich? Again, it wanted to be.

Can a movie be all of the above in one? Maybe? But it has to have a deft hand at the control, which this did not. There was too much thrown at me in this movie, none of which gelled with the other parts. I would say the star-studded ensemble part was the strongest of the movie and that’s only because the marquee actors were so good and were having a blast mugging it up. The problem was that for all the excellent acting, the writing was atrocious. I understand Johnson was trying to follow the patois and patter of older movies, but it all fell flat to my ears.

Let’s take the political aspect of the movie. Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the aide of the billionaire best author, Harlan Thrombey (the indomitable Christopher Plummer), is an undocumented immigrant from a non-specific Central American country. It’s a running gag in the movie that nobody in the family knows exactly where she’s from, but they all assume she’s in the country legally. We in the audience know differently because Johnson takes great pains to make sure we know her mother is undocumented. Then, he writes a scene in which Don Johnson goes on a rant about those people breaking the laws and doing it the wrong way. Those people being undocumented immigrants, of course.  He tries to draw Marta into the argument, insisting she’s done it the right way. I rolled my eyes, literally, at how heavy-handed the whole scene was.

In case we don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation, there is another scene later between Walt (Michael Shannon, hapless younger son of Harlan, nominally in charge of Harlan’s publishing house, but really just a sinecure position) and Marta that drives home the point. I could dismiss the clumsy handling of the politics if it wasn’t made into such a touchstone of the movie. Johnson wanted credit for including the issue and being woke, but didn’t want to, you know, actually engage in an actual conversation about the issue. Monica Castillo wrote an opinion/review of the film for the New York Times that delves more deeply into this topic and it’s worth a read.

I was already starting to note all the things that bothered me about the movie roughly five minutes in. Let’s start with the portrayal of the hapless police detective who just knows it’s a suicide, gosh dang it! Lieutenant Elliott, played by LaKeith Stanfield, was not believable as a detective in any shape or form. He pooh-poohed everything Blanc said about the case and was way too eager to declare it shut. Was it just the trope of the dense inspector? Maybe. But, he wasn’t stumbling and daft enough for me to believe that he would simply ignorant and/or stupid.

I will admit that my teeth were set on edge from the very start of the movie, despite the star turns by the Triple A actors. Like I said, the writing was too arch and contrived for my taste, and so much of it was so stereotypical. And the set-up? Also bland and boring. Rich, eccentric, bullheaded billionaire coddles his family their entire life and then decides to take a stand for Their Own Good. Surprise, surprise, they don’t view it in the same way! It gives everyone a motive for murder, and each motive is a tired trope in and of itself.

I haven’t even mentioned Marta, the kindhearted nurse/aide/caretaker at the heart of this movie. Why? Because of the main characters, hers is the worst-written. While the rest are rigid stereotypes, her character is a cipher and unrecognizable. She’s too pure for this world, the movie implies, to the point where she vomits if she lies.

I mean…I can’t. When that trope was trotted out, I mentally quit the movie. Given that it was in the first ten minutes of the movie, I knew I was in for a rough ride. Look. I wanted to like the movie; I really did. I had heard so many good things about it, and I was desperate for a juicy murder mystery.

Here’s my problem with the movie. Well, one of them. It was too artificial for me to get lost in the it. I knew it was a movie, and I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be that way. However, it’s also not enough of a parody/spoof/satire for me to enjoy it from that point of view either because Johnson seemed to want to elevate it above its station. Had he kept it strictly B movie level, I would have at least accepted it at face value.

When Marta had a flashback as to what had happened to Thrombey senior, I could only nitpick every single plot point. It was only halfway through the movie, but when I realized I had an hour left rather than ten or fifteen minutes (I misread the time counter), I hard quit the movie. I really didn’t want to watch the rest of it, but I felt I had to. I Googled the director and discovered that Rian Johnson’s first movie was Brick. Which I thought was vastly overrated as well. Way too pretentious and full of itself was my verdict at the time. I really didn’t like it, and I liked this movie even less.

Did I go back to it? I did. But this is getting long so I’ll write more about it later. For now, just know that my claws are out when it comes to Knives Out, especially the second half.

Leave a reply