Friday 6 December 2019

Wicked game: "Knives Out"

When was the last time you saw a truly satisfying murder-mystery? I ask not just because it's one of the many questions raised in the course of watching Rian Johnson's Knives Out, but because it's one Johnson himself appears to have considered before sitting down at the laptop. Perhaps the supremely cine-literate filmmaker behind 2005's Brick self-identifies as part of that generation who've succeeded in turning 1985's flop Clue into an enduring cult; either way, Johnson has used the studio goodwill gained in overseeing 2017's The Last Jedi to take the country-house whodunnit down from its dusty shelf, as one might a Cluedo set. All the key pieces are still there: the sprawling, well-appointed pile, the extended family turned list of suspects, called into the drawing room by a master detective, the final double- or tripleback reveal confounding everything even the sharpest-eyed viewer thought they knew. What Johnson adds is a sense of what it is to revive the murder-mystery in 2019: so of course the family under investigation are as deeply dysfunctional as the clans in Succession, or the White House, or Buckingham Palace, for that matter, and of course the interrogation of their ways and means comprises a pop-cinema idea of class struggle, but equally the film never loses sight of those elements the audience has always responded to. You could watch Knives Out back-to-back with Le Mans '66 in a multiplex this weekend and feel positive that the studios are fumbling, in their usual, haphazard way, back in the direction of making movies worth leaving the couch for.

An idea of gameplaying is central to Johnson's film; it's what makes Knives Out such an apposite holiday release. The murder victim, best-selling crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), wheels out the Go board every night to pit his wits against his devoted nurse Marta (Ana de Armas); Thrombey's powersuited daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) informs the cops her dad was a master manipulator around whom all would be well "so long as you played by his rules". The script is floating the idea that this plot is one of Harlan's own inventing, but you also sense that, after the extensive green-screen work of his Star Wars endeavours, Johnson is enjoying himself anew, shooting on actual Massachusetts locations, in the open air, with not a droid in sight: he seems liberated. Those real world elements allow him to attempt something more mischievous than a major event movie would now allow for, both in the framing of individual shots (introducing Daniel Craig's detective Benoit Blanc as a blur in the very back of the shot, and holding him there for the longest time) and the editorial suggestion that the Thrombeys are only one or two manoeuvres away from full-on Trumpism. Johnson received more than his fair share of online flak for helping to turn the Star Wars universe into the multicultural utopia it now resembles. Here, he appears to be doing some trolling of his own in using a wide-release studio movie to take casual potshots at the foibles of a ruling class being stripped of their privileges, and those dim-bulb oiks who honestly believe they'll benefit from defending them.

If there's anything more substantial going on here, then it lies in the pleasure of playing - and of watching people play. Very quickly, I abandoned the hunt for clues to instead note down the grace notes being scattered by these performers: Plummer mocking his own old age, for instance, or gatekeeper M. Emmet Walsh's expert doddering, or Curtis's Linda defending Elena from her rabid relatives up until the exact point she learns (as is almost murder-mystery tradition now) that her father has bequeathed the ancestral home to this underling. Most obvious beneficiary of the relaxed vibe Johnson apparently fostered on set: sometime Captain America Chris Evans, who - as Linda's "smug trustfund prick" son Ransom - shows up halfway through the willreading scene in knitwear half the planet's already gone doolally over, demolishes half a packet of Lotus Biscoff, puts an extra pop upon the p in one "yup", and then knocks off for much of the middle act. Second most obvious beneficiary: Benoit Blanc himself. Craig - a great supporting actor elevated overnight to a stardom he's had to wrestle with - takes an evident delight in being relegated to the background, and not having to deploy any licence to kill. Knives Out isn't profound, by any means, and it starts to feel vaguely overstretched late on, going awry during the finale in shutting its most colourful characters away in an adjacent room. (Johnson's so keen to wrongfoot us he takes one eye off the board.) Yet it's instructive as a demonstration of just how much fun actors and directors can have when they're not bound up in the drab contractual obligation of making, promoting and defending franchise movies. Benoit Blanc may or may not return to our screens at some point in the near-future; I fear the integral novelty of Knives Out will be all but unrepeatable.

Knives Out is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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