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« The New Classics: I Am Love | Main | Latin American happenings in the Oscar submission realm »
Tuesday
Sep102019

TIFF: Eating the Rich with "Knives Out"

by Chris Feil

When Rian Johnson announced a star-studded murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, you didn’t think it would just be a straightforward genre exercise, did you? As he has shown in films such as Looper (and to an extent Star Wars: The Last Jedi in its brilliant eschewing of franchise dogma), Johnson delights in subverting our expectations of genre ever so slightly. Knives Out film is no exception, not only turning the ensemble comedy into a rollicking eat-the-rich satire, but also taking the standard whodunit plotting and repositioning it with exciting reinvention. Even if your tastes consider the book mold stodginess of Christie to remain delicious, Johnson’s modern narrative take should satisfy even purists.

Knives Out centers around the wealthy Thrombey family, plopping us in their creaky mansion filled with embittered siblings and extended relatives with varied flavors of entitlement. After the entire family has gathered to celebrate the elder Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) birthday, he is found with a slashed throat in an assumed suicide. But as the police (including the droll brilliance of Lakeith Stanfield) clear up the investigation, lurking in the background is the eccentric and quasi-famous Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired under mysterious circumstances.

Blanc is not hurting for suspects among this privileged crew. There’s Michael Shannon’s Walt, a partner in Harlan’s publishing business with aims of taking over. Jamie Lee Curtis plays spiritual head of the household with her own successful business, weighed down by Don Johnson’s buffoonish husband and her family pariah son Ransom (Chris Evans). Every viewer is bound to have a different MVP among the ensemble (and rest assured that there are no wrong answers), but for yours truly its Toni Collette’s quasi-Gwyneth Paltrow daughter-in-law still ingrained in the family and it’s money after her Thrombey husband has died.

But also called in to question is Harlan’s beloved nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). The source of forced niceties and empty platitudes from the family, Ana is the most along the fringes of the bursting household, but the closest to Harlan’s heart. Marta is instrumental not only to revealing the prejudices of the family but also to providing a different point of entry into the genre, but Johnson never reduces her to simple device. She’s the film’s most affectionately drawn character, with de Armas giving an arrestingly tense performance with one of the film’s funniest recurring gags.

Knives Out is a funhouse of satisfyingly vicious takedowns of rich, self-concerned Republican racism that knows precisely how broad it should play things. Certainly a threat to win TIFF’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award, the film finds Johnson as a master juggler of genres, making an almost aggressive film that still doesn’t break a sweat in thrilling you in every way it attempts. Jokes fly at breakneck speed and with a full-bodied force, all with keenly observed character detail that builds a larger portrait of insufferable family dynamics.

What makes Knives Out such a joyful experience (and one that should absolutely be seen with a massive crowd) is the catharsis that comes with its very arch depiction of the toxins that currently poison the American culture. Johnson however crafts something that is neither pandering nor cheaply cynical, instead offering a sophistication of ideas to serve a foundation to its slowly revealed political farce. There are big emotional payoffs throughout, and it’s one of the sharpest deployments of genre to serve an unexpected purpose that you’re likely to see at the multiplex in the coming fall. It’s a movie to trick your least favorite relative into and then delight in watching them squirm. B+

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Reader Comments (8)

As a lover of Agatha Christie novels, (and some screen adaptations) I am genetically engineered to seek out this movie. If it's as good as you describe here in your review, I will be extremely happy.
Happy is an understatement, where there is a body in the library, (or elsewhere) I am sure to follow.
Bring it on, and congratulations to Rian Johnson. Jamie Lee Curtis looks fantastic in the photos.

September 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I am excited for this based on the reviews. I thought the trailer was awful.

September 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

I, too, am excited for this based mainly on the rave reviews...though I also really liked BRICK.

September 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

Yes, the trailer did a poor job of selling this movie. I will be there for the reviews - and the stacked cast. It's nice to see Jamie Lee Curtis in a big ensemble film like this.

September 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I love Rian's films, so I'm really looking forward to this.

September 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrittani

I adored it! Daniel Craig is a riot and I love how the story keeps surprising you, not necessarily with its twists but with the way it chooses to hadle its beats, and yes, the social commentary which is injected so sneakily, yet never forced.

I'm curious, did you catch the public screening at Princess of Wales on Saturday or the P&I screening Monday morning?

September 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I want to fucking see this and fuck everyone who hated The Last Jedi. I loved it!!!! Fuck you! Go watch your fucking prequels!

September 10, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Can Craig get a Supporting Actor nomination for this?

September 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

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