Knives Out review

9 December 2019

Title:Knives Out
Genre:Crime Comedy
Runtime:130 min

There is an exclusive club of movie directors for whom any discussion of their films is meaningless without discussing the directors themselves. Rian Johnson is perhaps the newest addition to this club. This is pretty amazing, given he so far only has five film credits to his name, of which two you've likely never heard of (Brick and The Brothers Bloom).

He also made one music documentary currently at an IMDb score of 2.8 based on 41 votes, a few shorts, and four TV series episodes, including one episode of Breaking Bad that easily wins first prize for absolute and by far the worst episode in this entire otherwise-great series.

So, what are the three films that require us to discuss his personal input? In 2012 he made Looper. This bought him exactly the right amount of credit to give him his next gig. If it had been less successful, he would have been considered too high risk. If it had been more successful, he would have been considered an auteur, again disqualifying him because his next gig was for the powerhouse, the film conveyor belt, that is Disney. He was hired to make Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi by a studio where the key hiring criterion is predictability.

And this is where the story takes a sharp turn, an unforeseen twist if you will, because from that franchise-maker factory, Johnson came out holding an auteur title, after a film that, in all Disney metrics, was a colossal failure. It didn't make anywhere near the same amount of money as comparable films in the Star Wars franchise, it triggered for the first time ever a decline in Star Wars merchandise sales, it coincided with the famously unsuccessful opening of a Star Wars themed new area in Disneyland, caused an unprecedented backlash from core Star Wars fans, and put the future of the entire franchise in question, and this at a time when it was meant to gather momentum in the run-up to what Disney clearly hopes will be a strong finish for the Skywalker saga and a robust set-up for additional spin-offs.

So, why did he get this title of an auteur? Is it all Disney's marketing machine pressuring influential reviewers into praising this otherwise-dud of a film?

Which is what makes Knives Out so interesting in the filmography of Rian Johnson. It was Johnson's chance to show the world whether he is all his deriders have accused him of being as "The man who singlehandedly ruined Star Wars", or is he the visionary the professional critics have been heralding him as?

The answer? Interestingly, Johnson decided to dive headlong into the controversy. His film is everything the critics hoped for: the bold colour choices, the dynamic camera angles, the slight disconnect between the actors and their settings. (OK, I may have invented that last one, but it's very true, used to excellent ironic effect in Knives Out and in retrospect prevalent also in The Last Jedi. If critics didn't pick up on it then, they should pick up on it now.) At the same time, the film is also everything the deriders of The Last Jedi have feared: the film seems singularly uncommitted to its own world-building. It repeatedly and openly breaks both the laws of external logic and the laws that it itself establishes regarding its own setting. The film is not even sure regarding what time period it is happening in. On the one hand, it includes some extremely up-to-date references, including one open political debate regarding present-day politics, but on the other hand it also includes some extremely dated references (VCRs? Really? Angela Lansbury? Really?), to the point that some of its newer references (Baby Driver? Really?) look out of place, jarring, and perhaps pandering to some not-quite-defined audience.

What does it make the film?

Well, Knives Out is a tongue-in-cheek take on the Agatha Christie genre. Again, unsure of itself, it never decides whether it is an out-and-out parody or whether it should at all be taken seriously at face value. But even walking this line, it is clear that irony is the strongest tool in its toolbox.

This often works well. The film is without a doubt a fun romp.

Also, the cast is obviously stellar, though I'm usually wary of films with a stellar cast. It's usually the studio's way of guaranteeing some income to a film that is in all other ways irredeemable. In this particular case, the stellar cast is criminally underused, with each actor's clout being inversely proportional to the amount of screen time they are given. If you ask whether they at least make the most out of the material they have been given in the screen time they have, the answer is that none of the actors whose name you've ever heard of gets any material to work with. It's absolutely preposterous. The only exception to this rule is Daniel Craig, complete with a distracting southern drawl, whose character, once again, is filled with infuriating contradictions, to the point where it is completely unclear whether he is the best detective ever, or the worst.

And then there's the plot. The maddening thing about the plot is that in a film so full of contradictions and implausibilities, all twists are obvious from quite so far head as they are. And I don't mean just being able to predict the next twist. I mean that within ten minutes into the film I knew exactly where it will end up and how. That's not Agatha Christie quality.

So there you have it, the Rian Johnson enigma. If you're happy to put style ahead of substance, snappy dialogue ahead of a coherent plot, and characters with interesting quirks rather than ones that can actually hold your suspense of disbelief, then Rian Johnson is the director for you and you're going to love this movie. I certainly enjoyed it for what it is.

But I also like all these other things, and for me a good film should have both. As a result, fun though Knives Out may be, in the end it is as hollow as the metaphorical doughnut, and as a result amounts to little more than forgettable, throwaway entertainment.