' ' Cinema Romantico: Knives Out

Friday, January 10, 2020

Knives Out

At first, you hardly see him. He’s slung back in a chair, glimpsed over the shoulder of a Detective (Lakeith Stanfield) interviewing family members whose patriarch, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), has committed suicide. The ‘he’ is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator, whose bemused smile shines so luminously even in out of focus long shots that you can’t help but notice him. Neither can Harlan’s family members. “Who is that?”, one of them finally asks, though a bit more colorfully than that, a question in the middle of questioning foreshadowing Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” as a knotty whodunit with unlimited queries to untangle. And even if “Knives Out” is not especially visually rememberable, its images more about planting seeds to pay off at various points down the road, when Benoit finally takes a seat closer to the action and speaks, Johnson takes full advantage of Craig’s piercing blue eyes which, in an authoritative close-up from below, virtually glow against the mahogany backdrop extending all the way up to the ceiling. Craig has never looked more like a Movie Star.

That might sound weird. He was James Bond, after all. Yet he was saddled with the Gritty Reboot 007 phase, meaning his merriment only came in and fits and starts. It took Steven Soderbergh in “Logan Lucky” and now Johnson in “Knives Out” to truly harness that glimmer in Craig’s eye. Funny thing, then, that both movies have tasked Craig, an Englishman, with employing a southern accent. And while linguists can hash out the veracity of Craig’s drawl, I’m more interested in the drawl as an emblem of his finally getting to cut loose. Indeed, while Benoit indulging in a brief solo singalong to Sondheim might be Johnson’s nod to the musical master’s connection to murder mysteries, the moment mostly just works unto itself, nothing more than a chance to see Daniel Craig have fun. Remember fun? At the movies? Gosh, it’s the best.

Benoit has been called to the extensive estate under mysterious pretenses, an envelope of cash from an unnamed recipient instructing to show up and prowl around. It could have come straight from one of the celebrated novels penned by Harlan, a mystery writer whose bonafides are borne out in a flashback where he choreographs another character’s tracks-covering, a soliloquy delivered by Plummer with supreme cool, the accompanying visuals not even so much for our benefit as a manifestation of how it’s already playing out in his mind. Harlan’s mansion even seems to have been designed by a mystery writer, a labyrinth of secret doors and hidden rooms, all waiting to be opened and found as Benoit conducts an investigation in which the truth and fiction shape-shift, the case proving to be both as simple as it appears and not that simple at all, carefully constructed by Johnson to seem to be heading in one direction only, midway through, to stop dead in its tracks and pivot.

The twisting narrative coalesces around Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas). She, we quickly learn, cannot tell a lie, a la the mythical George Washington, but with a rub – that is, if she does tell a lie, she hurls. That’s a tic that could either be read as a colorful writerly means of upping the stakes in every situation, where other characters become aware of her tic and use it to their advantage, or as an emblem of Marta’s emergent righteousness. Probably it could be as read both. Because Johnson is not out simply to bend our minds into a pretzel but to transform this murder mystery into something approximating class warfare. In the opening moments, as Harlan’s clan gathers, everyone virtue signals directly to Marta, explaining who did and did not want to invite her to the funeral while offering vacuous queries of “Are you all right, kiddo?” That concluding informal noun evinces a smug sense of superiority that they are the adults in the room even though each one of them is presented as spoiled rich kids masquerading as adults, even a septuagenarian like Don Johnson, never mind Toni Collette as the widow of Harlan’s deceased son doing a sidesplitting send-up of the Resistance socialite.

That might suggest an eat the rich satire, but Johnson is less interested in casting Marta as an avenger than an angel, not simply letting her inherent goodness rise out of the action but having characters literally tell her she’s a good person. That coupled with a conspicuous lack of deeper characterization, her immigrant family existing more as a counterpoint to the squabbling Thrombleys than as flesh and blood, has the odd effect of inadvertently infantilizing her in the same way as all those insincere “kiddo” declamations. And that’s too bad, because de Armas refrains from overdoing the virtue, evincing something more like the bewilderment of a person thrust into an unexpected situation and finding the wherewithal to get through, even forming an entertaining duo with Craig in their moments together. And it’s Craig as Benoit, frankly, more than Marta or Harlan or whoever else, who becomes the movie’s through line, that arch smile not necessarily evoking someone one step ahead but someone always convinced there is “one central piece” waiting to reveal itself. And when it does, Craig gets to kick the tires and light the fires, reminding us that even if cinema is a visual medium sometimes its best just to watch someone say some stuff.

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