Knives Out (2019)

“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.

All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.

The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.

The first time I saw the trailer for this film was before The Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Knock Knock (2015)

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I’ve never bothered watching an Eli Roth movie before, mostly because I associate him with the mid 00s torture porn aesthetic that I generally try to avoid in my horror binges. Roth has a way of sneaking into other projects I’m interested in, though, and I’ve started to notice over the years that he seems to have a sense of humor to his work that I had missed out on from the outside looking in. If you judge Roth solely by his fake Thanksgiving trailer for the Grindhouse project, his performance as “The Bear Jew” in Inglourious Basterds, and his production work on the campy body horror Clown, he comes off as much less misanthropic than his usual reputation would suggest. As sick as his sense of humor seems to be, I’ve come to think of Roth as something of a prankster. If you need a brief glimpse of what I’m getting at, look to the trailer for Roth’s recent home invasion piece Knock Knock. Everything from Keanu Reeves’s strange line deliveries to the film’s cheap digital look to its winking title suggests that it’s supposed to play like a joke. I’m not sure that I have enough context to settle that question of Roth’s tonal intent on my own, but I can say that if Knock Knock was indeed meant to be a setup for a joke, the punchline was constantly amusing, making for a decent entry point into a career I’ve been too grossed out to approach for more than a decade now.

A nasty exploitation thriller that resembles a direct-to-DVD knockoff of Funny Games, it’s tempting to view Knock Knock in the same light as more typifying Eli Roth ventures like Hostel or Green Inferno. Whereas those titles have a pointed central message (usually about cultural tourism & American entitlement) & a dedication to gut-wrenching gore, however, Knock Knock is much more deliberately ditzy. Keanu Reeves plays a doting husband who’s alone for the weekend in his beautiful home when two young women knock on his door soaked & shivering in the rain. He’s initially kind to the girls, but far from predatory; things eventually get too steamy for him to resist, though, as the girls flirtatiously pressure him into cheating on his wife over the course of a night lifted straight out of a letter to Penthouse. Of course, as soon as he cheats his doom is sealed and the girls immediately switch from sexual fantasy to violent nightmare. They destroy his home, yip like wild dogs, tie him up, sexually assault him, and stab him with food utensils. You could search for meaning or a sense of morality in their gleeful chaos, maybe something about the gender reversal of predatory sexuality or about how all men are liars & cheats under the surface, but the film feels far too deliberately empty-headed for any of those themes to register. Instead, all that shines through is a Daisies-esque dedication to pointless, childlike abandon (except without the political context or attention to visual craft). Knock Knock is much more of a nihilist comedy than a pointed satire of gender politics and the psyche of the modern American husband/father.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to tell if the comedy was entirely intentional here is that it largely comes across in the performances. Keanu Reeves has a bewildering way of balancing between overacting & underacting, with no measured sense of middle ground, that plays so damn weird when he’s given enough space to chew scenery. In Knock Knock, he reaches Nic Cage levels of distracting performance, a one man camp spectacle that often feels as if he’s making fun of his own lines instead of trying to sell them. There’s an obvious humor to his delivery of lines like, “Wowww, chocolate with sprinkles!,” “Do you kids want to live in a box?,” and “It was free pizza!,” but they’re far from Keanu’s only amusing line readings. Something about the way he says things like, “What’s the point of this?!,” “I’m a good person. I made a mistake,” and “I’m an architect, so I believe that things happen by your own design,” points directly back to how hacky & corny the script is on a fundamental level, to the point where the film plays more like sketch comedy than erotic thriller. Actors Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo have an obvious blast playing Reeves’s seductors/tormentors, but even their over-the-top, childlike exuberance somehow can’t match the strangely inhuman way he quietly delivers his lines. Knock Knock truly is Reeves’s Wicker Man (2006) or his Vampire’s Kiss. It’s just waiting to be picked apart and cut down to YouTube memery.

The only question I have is exactly how much Roth was participating in the humor of this film. Knock Knock features a female-on-male rape, raises questions about childhood sexual abuse & incest, and indulges in the exact modes of life-threatening violence you’d expect from a self-serious home invasion exploitation piece, so it’s tempting to believe the director meant for his audience to take the film at face value. However, there’s just as much evidence to the contrary onscreen. Besides Roth’s prankster past & the joke plainly hinted at in Knock Knock‘s title, there’s a visual play to the movie that matched Reeves’s weirdo comedy energy, particularly in the way the frame lingers on details like the Hollywood sign & strategically-placed portraits of its protagonist’s family. If Knock Knock were meant to play as a straightforward thriller about predatory sexuality & the dangers of infidelity, I’d say it was a thorough misfire. As a nasty comedy overflowing with pointless nihilism & memorably campy performances, however, the film resonates a consistent success. I may not know enough about Eli Roth to decidedly say where this film falls on that divide, but I can honestly report that it amused me for the entirety of its runtime, which was a lot more payoff than what I expected to take away from this one.

-Brandon Ledet