Each year, there are movies that I feel were overlooked by major awards bodies. In this 5-part Oscars column called “The Case For…”, I will discuss and make a case for a few of the movies released in 2019 that I think deserve attention as Oscar voting is just about to get under way. Yesterday was The Lighthouse. Today is…
THE CASE FOR… KNIVES OUT
“Who’s afraid of Agatha Christie?”
Rian Johnson has been one of the most widely and heavily discussed men in Hollywood in the last two years. He directed Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, and he got some of the loudest reactions to a film in the last ten years. The Star Wars fandom accused him betraying the franchise, of tainting the legacy of one of the most successful film sagas of all time, of not respecting the mood of the series. Despite the film being an immense commercial success, the name of Rian Johnson would be always associated with the outcry over the narrative choices he made on The Last Jedi.
Two years later, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out hits the silver screens to critical and box office success, despite being an original story not related to any previously published content, something more and more rare in today’s cinema. Why? Well, to put it simply, because Knives Out is an absolutely brilliant movie.
Families like the Thrombeys are usually seen only in films or books. Rich, privileged, bizarre, living and thriving in their bubble, but also shady, greedy, snarky and hateful. Therefore it’s not just obvious, it’s also very expected that Rian Johnson places the action one day after Harlan Thrombey, the 85-years-old wealthy crime writer played by a magnificent Christopher Plummer, is found dead with his throat slit. Who is the mysterious killer? Who can have committed the atrocious crime on the night of his birthday?
Benoit Blanc, the exquisitely funny Daniel Craig, in one of his best roles, is looking for suspects to interview on a throne of knives, and he has an embarrassment of riches to pick from. Could it be Walt (Michael Shannon), Harlan’s youngest son, who had a discussion with his father about the tv and film rights of his novel? Or maybe was it Richard (Don Johnson), Harlan’s son-in-law, who found himself in a very uncomfortable situation? Or maybe Hugh (Chris Evans), also known as “Ransom”, who was seen storming out of the mansion after a heated argument with his grandfather? There’s a lot to unpack for Benoit Blanc, and the ride is just waiting to start.
Knives Out is a brilliant film, and one of the best of the year, in my opinion, because it plays with the tropes of a whodunit without ever indulging in its conventions. It is a murder mystery until it is not. Without going too much into spoilery details, the viewer is put on the driver’s seat, always being one step ahead of the characters. This lets you see the arguments, the fights, the drama and the gory details from a completely different perspective. What you eventually see is a tragic comedy of errors, the comedy of humanity in its pettiest nature, exercising abuse whenever the occasion rises. The only character that is truly saved is that of Marta Cabrera, the Southern-American nurse of Harlan Thrombey played with profound dignity and purity by the beautiful and touching Ana de Armas. Catalyst for a lot of unwarranted and unwanted attention, Marta becomes a central figure in the film, giving a political dimension that would otherwise be there. Yes, there are references to Trump and Trumpism, but it would be reductive to limit the movie to that. Trumpism, in Knives Out, merely provides the frame for a snapshot of a country in regression, lost in its verbal violence and in its increasing nationalism. It is no wonder that Rian Johnson chose a murder mystery to examine the current state of affairs in America.
Driven by the subversive and wildly funny screenplay written by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is a movie that can pass both as a simple yet smart crime mystery and as a political and social satire, living in its own microcosm of old mansions (wonderfully recreated by production designer David Crank) and creaking doors or as a credible, although fictional, depiction of Trump’s America. With a cast (Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette) that would have been deserving of a SAG Ensemble nomination, this film proves not only that there are directors out there willing to take artistic risks, but also that original content can be successful both with critics and with audiences alike.
Knives Out should be nominated for:
Best Actress – Ana de Armas
Best Supporting Actor – Daniel Craig
Best Original Screenplay – Rian Johnson
Best Production Design – David Crank