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So, to start out, I first heard about this film from a critic I have learned to trust. And I was immediately turned off when he said that big chunks of the film are driven by a fake-out twist that isn't nearly as clever as the film thinks it is. I only went to see it at all because I wanted to take my brother, my grandfather, and several friends I'd reunited with for the holidays out to the movies, and when Ford v. Ferrari had left theaters this was the one everyone agreed they wanted to see.
I should've listened harder when that critic ultimately recommended it.
Now, to be clear, that fake-out twist is there, and it isn't as clever as the film thinks it is, but neither it nor other attempts to be cute (Oh man! A murder mystery writer murdered in a way straight out of a murder mystery! Columbo totally didn't do that... decades ago... twice.) have that intolerable, overpowering whiff of smugness I often get from other media that isn't as clever as it thinks it's being.
It does a good job of presenting the typical whodunnit dysfunctional family cast, but unlike some others in the genre (Crooked House, which shares more than a little with this film, springs to mind), their portrayal, while merciless, is also almost affectionate rather than purely cutting. And while it does get a bit more topical and a bit less timeless than I'd like, it at least skillfully uses these things to establish characterization rather than to "just" score relevancy points. Plus, the script pops with wit and actual cleverness throughout, with actually rather funny lines and subtle details that enhance characterization.
Oh, and the nuts-and-bolts filmmaking is excellent. A great cast of great actors who all "get" their eccentric characters very well, and a number of subtle cinematographic touches that pay close attention to mood and atmosphere. I don't know why Daniel Craig loves doing Southern accents so much, but at least he can actually act while affecting one.
Furthermore, that fake-out twist actually conceals the fairly clever mystery underneath. I was able to figure out the culprit and some parts of the ongoing events (at least partly through knowledge of the genre rather than clues on-screen, though also with clues on-screen) just by watching and thinking before film's end, but when the parlor scene hit, there were a number of smart details that lined up I realized I'd missed.
I guess that's why I will heartily recommend the film without reservation. Because it's not unbearably smug when it's trying and failing to be clever, and it's incredibly entertaining when it's just actually being clever.
Whereas the recent Murder on the Orient Express attempts to revitalise the classic whodunit story, Knives Out is by far the more accurate and effective pastiche. Nowadays modern movie and television demands there has to be some major emotional journey for the detective to follow (Orient Express, the Sherlock series), to the point where it overshadows the actual mystery plot. Knives Out is resolutely old fashioned, and by being so, is surprisingly refreshing. Finally we have a movie that ignores all of that nonsense and focuses on the mystery; the thing we're actually here for.
Specifically, the story starts with the mysterious circumstances of the death of Hanlan, an eccentric and fabulously wealthy murder mystery writer. His mansion is full of dysfunctional relatives and hangers-on, each with their own claim to Hanlan's wealth. Knives Out wears its influences on its sleeves: one character describes Hanlan's mansion as "the Clue House", and other characters dip into episodes of Murder She Wrote. No one calls Daniel Craig's detective "Poirot", but they might as well; he's the Kentucky version of the character, albeit with more accent and less moustache.
Whilst Craig and the other big name actors are poised to steal the show, Ana De Armas turns out to be the stealth protagonist, turning in a performance as the hapless former nurse to Hanlan. Much of the story is built around a peculiar physical quirk of hers that puts her front and centre of the murder case, and keeps her in constant jeopardy. To say more would be spoiling, but suffice to say she is the real star. Then there's the mansion, which is a character in-and-of itself, crammed to the rafters with sculptures and secrets. In the centre is a giant knife sculpture that might as well have been signed by Anton Chekhov.
I had a lot of fun with Knives Out. It's a silly and humble movie that's well worth the price of admission. Also, unlike - again - Murder on the Orient Express which blatantly cheats, Knives has a functional mystery that you are invited to figure out for yourself. I even managed to get about half of it right, so you should give the movie a try and see if you can do better.
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