Movie Reviews: With ‘Knives Out,’ Rian Johnson Can Add the Whodunit to His Collection of Filmmaking Merit Badges

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CREDIT: Claire Folger © 2018 MRC II Distribution

Starring: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, Noah Segan, Edi Patterson, Riki Lindhome, K Callan, Frank Oz, Raúl Castillo, M. Emmet Walsh

Director: Rian Johnson

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Explosions, Possible Poisonings, and (Attempted?) Stabbings

Release Date: November 27, 2019

If you’d like to dust off a musty old genre and guide it to unexpected new depths, then you might just want to call Rian Johnson. He’s already shown what new joys await in a neo-noir mystery, a time-travelling actioner, and the biggest franchise of all time, and now with Knives Out, he moves on to the whodunit, and the answer to that question is, “By golly, Rian Johnson has done it once again!”

Since every whodunit needs a murder victim and a set of suspects, Knives Out has a bounty of them. The recently dead man is super-wealthy mystery novelist (wink, wink?) Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and the folks who might be responsible or maybe know something consist of his mother Wanetta (K Collins), his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Hugh Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), and his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). While his employees generally get along with him, his family members all have reason to resent him (and they also keep mixing up which South or Central American country Marta is from). Naturally enough, there are also a couple of police detectives on hand (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and an idiosyncratic private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired under mysterious circumstances.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

The trick that Knives Out pulls is that within twenty minutes, it reveals everything (or nearly everything) that happened in thorough detail. Harlan’s death is initially ruled a suicide, and we are shown pretty much unmistakably that he sliced his own throat, and everyone’s presence at that moment is accounted for. Done deal, then? Well, there’s still nearly two more hours of running time left. The script keeps itself honest thanks to one particularly telling character quirk: Marta’s “regurgitative reaction to mistruthing.” That is to say, whenever she lies, or merely even considers lying, she spews chunks. Thus, there is no other option than for the truth to similarly spill out, and there is no room for contrivances to keep the audience in the dark. But that having been said, information can be obscured and unknown unknowns can take some time to make themselves known. Ergo, Rian Johnson gives us the simultaneous joy of being let in on a little secret while also playing the guessing game.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

In addition to Knives Out‘s masterful mystery machinations, it additionally offers plenty of keen observations of human nature. There is the ever-timely message of the tension that emerges when the haves and have-nots bump against each other, as well as the chaos that can reign when fortunes swing wildly. Furthermore, there is an astute understanding of the difference between truth and honesty, and how the latter can help you survive when the former is hidden. All of this is to say, motivation matters a great deal in cinema, and in life.

Knives Out is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Logan Lucky

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Colorful Sweaters

This Is a Movie Review: Hearts Beat Loud

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CREDIT: Gunpowder & Sky

I give Hearts Beat Loud 3 out of 5 SoundClouds:

This Is a Movie Review: Hereditary

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I give Hereditary 4 out of 5 Decapitations:

This Is a Movie Review: Please Stand By

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Toni Collette, Alice Eve, River Alexander, Jessica Rothe, Michael Stahl-David, Patton Oswalt

Director: Ben Lewin

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Frank Mentions About Bodily Functions and an Emotional Breakdown or Two

Release Date: January 26, 2018 (Limited Theatrically and On Demand)

Early on in Please Stand By, Wendy’s (Dakota Fanning) Cinnabon co-worker Nemo (Tony Revolori) gifts her with a mix CD, which has me thinking, “Do people even make mix CD’s anymore?” As someone who believes in the virtue of simultaneously embracing both new and outdated forms of technology, I do not object to the presence of music on physical media (my own CD collection is still hefty and its recent slowdown in growth is due mostly to a dwindling in space and not a newfound preference for digital), but it does stick out as odd in a film that I am firmly certain is supposed to be taking place in the present day. In general, there are few, if any, clear markers indicating when Please Stand By is set. The best we have to go on is the fact that Wendy has an iPod, which tells us that the time must be no earlier than 2001.

It is fitting that Wendy’s story has a somewhat out-of-time quality to it. She is autistic and accordingly sticks to a strict routine, one that she has probably spent years firmly establishing. (That still doesn’t explain why her friend from work is still into CD’s, but whatever.) I believe that autistic characters have been well-represented enough in film and television that any single character does not have to bear the burden of representing ALL autistic people. And that is helpful, because while Wendy’s autism does play a major part in her story, it is specific in ways that go beyond that.

Ultimately from a certain angle this is a pretty simple road trip movie starring a girl and her chihuahua. They are heading out to California so that Wendy can hand-deliver her 500-page Star Trek script to Paramount Studios for a fan contest. She missed the mailing deadline due to stress involving family, and now her sister (Alice Eve) and caretaker (Toni Collette) are tracking her down to make sure she’s okay, seeing as she’s never been on her own before. This is a story of fandom, focused around a fan with an unfathomably deep interior life.

There is not all that much unique about Please Stand By. There are plenty of stories about obsessive fans, as well as ones about autistic people who struggle to connect with those around them. And it is no surprise that when you combine those two elements, you get someone who identifies deeply with Mr. Spock, as we have seen that plenty of times already as well. My Star Trek knowledge is sporadic (I’ve only seen the reboot films and the first episode of Discovery), but I believe I know enough about the major themes to say that Please Stand By does right by its inspirations. This is the sort of film that gives what is mostly a cameo outsize billing, but it feels justified: Patton Oswalt plays a police officer who speaks Klingon and makes the sort of day-to-day connection that Wendy has always been looking for. It is not instantly transformative, but it is the crux that represents the film’s easily digestible, reaffirming, humanistic message.

Please Stand By is Recommended If You Like: Star Trek (especially if you identify with Spock), Little Miss Sunshine, Patton Oswalt Cameos

Grade: 3 out of 5 Mix CD’s

This Is a Movie Review: Unlocked

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I give Unlocked 1 out of 5 Global Viruses: