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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, December 6, 2019

Craig steals the show as Detective Blanc in ‘Knives Out’




“Knives Out” is a throwback to the murder mysteries that were Agatha Christie’s stock and trade. There’s an untimely death, a detective with the instincts of a tiger and a cast of suspects with clear motives for killing the victim.

The film is even set within a creaky old mansion on the fringes of a small town. All it lacks is a butler who did it.

In spite of all that, “Knives Out” is no simple homage to a dead genre. Instead, after laying a foundation of murder mystery tropes, writer and director Rian Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) turns every one of these clichés on its head. The result is a terrifically entertaining and occasionally surprising film.

“Knives Out” takes place during the aftermath of a tragic family gathering during which the patriarch, a wealthy mystery novelist, is found dead. Although the police believe he killed himself, someone anonymously hires a famous private detective to prove foul play was involved.

The film features a standout ensemble cast that includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer and Michael Shannon, among others.

If you don’t know all of those actors, you should watch more movies. Casting director Mary Vernieu earned her paycheck, as everyone is terrific.

Craig is especially good in the role of Blanc. The James Bond actor proved in “Logan Lucky” that he can have fun with a character and pull the nuances out of a well-written script, and he does that again in “Knives Out.”

Blanc is both clever and bumbling, and Craig makes the most of the detective’s broad range of characteristics. From his delivery of Rian Johnson’s beautifully sculpted dialogue using a perfectly calibrated Southern drawl, to the way Blanc apologizes for questioning suspects even as he burrows to the truth, to the oversized coin he flips for dramatic effect, Craig helps to create one of the mystery genre’s most memorable detectives.

I imagine even Christie, Dashiell Hammett or Arthur Conan Doyle might be tossing in their graves, thinking, “I wish I’d thought of Blanc.” Perhaps they did, as Blanc is likely a blend of the best and worst traits of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes.

The genre’s greatest writers certainly thought of the story, or at least pieces of it. While “Knives Out” is an original work, it borrows many familiar elements from countless other tales. There’s the cheating spouse, the underachieving son, the black sheep and more.

However, Rian Johnson’s skilled plotting elevates the film above its intentionally banal elements. It was refreshing to watch a movie in which the quality of the writing was as important as the cinematography and camerawork.

Rian Johnson even manages to inject “Knives Out” with a strong dose of biting political commentary. The trajectory of the victim’s nurse, Marta, whose mother and sister are undocumented aliens, allows the filmmaker to eviscerate conservative attitudes toward materialism, social status and immigration.

Johnson weaved this subversive thread through every element of “Knives Out.” Even the old mansion in which the film is set, with its peculiar floor plan, stuffy rooms and kitschy furnishings, says things about contemporary American culture and its love affair, in some circles, with aging traditions.

If you’re tired of movies and TV shows that push a political agenda, don’t worry: “Knives Out” is first and foremost a tremendously fun film.

It only stumbles at the end, when Blanc launches into a lengthy and complex explanation of what happened. This seems to last forever and explains every possible loose thread. While listening, I wondered if Rian Johnson had written himself into a corner, and his only way out was to fashion an elaborate account of what happened.

Imagine if Fred spent 10 minutes explaining the plot of an episode of “Scooby Doo” after removing the villain’s mask. This impacts the payoff at the end of “Knives Out” and reveals at least one instance in which Johnson relied on an improbability to move the story forward.

But it thankfully doesn’t kill the film. Instead, “Knives Out” finishes well, ending with a shot that’s ironic, funny and characteristic of how well-conceived and directed the movie was.

Here’s hoping Johnson does more with Blanc. Like Poirot, Marple, Spade and Holmes, he’s too big to fit inside a single story.