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

Logan Lucky (2017)

I imagine a few outsiders are likely to be offended on The South’s behalf for the way the region is depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist picture. A self-described Oceans 7-11Logan Lucky stages an elaborate robbery of a NASCAR racetrack with the same technical intricacy of Soderbergh’s more lavish crime pictures, except now with the Southern-fried flavor of a Masterminds or Talladega Nights. A Louisiana native himself, Soderbergh feels intimately familiar with the Down South culture of his North Carolina & West Virginia settings, even peppering in references to LSU football as a callback to his Baton Rouge roots (which are more immediately perceptible in titles like Schizopolis & Sex, Lies, and Video Tape). Speaking as a lifelong Louisiana resident who’s familiar with the camo sweatpants & Bob Seger t-shirts country where Logan Lucky is staged, I personally found the film to be far more loving than satirical. Characters may awkwardly reference “knowing all the Twitters” or “looking it up on the Google” in their comically thick Southern accents, but the movie is genuinely invested in their emotional & financial hardships even while having a laugh at colloquialisms. Soderbergh may be making fun of his characters to an extent, but it’s in the way of an older brother ragging on their younger sibling. It’s done out of love & an unavoidable compulsion.

I’ve personally never seen an Oceans movie so I can’t directly compare Soderbergh’s sleek money-makers to Logan Lucky in terms of how they function as elaborate heist plots. I will say that there’s a laid-back, distinctly Southern vibe in the way the film builds up to its NASCAR track heist centerpiece that I doubt was integral to when he was filming beautiful movie stars robbing casinos in tuxedos. That slow Southern drawl delivery leaves a lot of room in the first two acts for character-based humor, however. Channing Tatum & Adam Driver star as two blue collar brothers who mastermind the NASCAR heist with a limited set of technical skills, but an intimate knowledge of how the facility’s money is stored & accounted for. Although Logan Lucky is a notable departure from the Oceans movies’ sleekness, it does feel like a direct continuation of Soderbergh’s previous collaboration with Tatum, Magic Mike. Both films can be wickedly fun in spurts, but also dwell on the dismal economic landscape suffered by modern American Southerners. Instead of struggling as a male stripper trying to make it out of the business, Tatum is a construction worker who’s let go for not disclosing a pre-existing medical condition, but desperately needs money to be able to afford his right to visit with his young daughter. Along with his bartender brother (Driver) & his hairdresser sister (Riley Keough), he intends to shatter a local superstition about his “family curse” by stealing a large sum of cash from an insured corporation that can stand to lose the money. As an audience, we never get the detailed plan of the heist until it’s entirely over, but rather take the time to get to know the Logan family in the weeks before they pull the trigger on their NASCAR-robbing ambitions. It’s easy to equate that kind of lead-up to traditional Southern Hospitality, which I believe to be a genuine impulse here.

Although I was often the only lunatic laughing in the theater, I do believe one of Logan Lucky‘s greatest strengths is its muted, character & setting derived sense of humor. A stranger accusing Tatum’s protagonist of being “one of them Unabomber types” because he doesn’t carry a cellphone or a smash cut from cockroaches to frying bacon had me cackling so much in the film’s first act build that I was in no rush to get to the payoff of its NASCAR heist. Admittedly, some of the humor in that build-up was in hearing ludicrously thick Southern accents attempted by big shot movie stars: Tatum, Driver, Keough, Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterson, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank (the last two of whom were tasked with similar caricatures in Sam Raimi’s The Gift), etc. Those accents are just one facet of Soderbergh’s larger scope portrait of Everywhere, America that rests at Logan Lucky‘s core, however. There are so many distinct touchstones of Americana informing the film’s aesthetic: child beauty pageants, Katie Holmes drinking white wine in the doorway of her McMansion, off-hand references to Dr. Phil and the Fast & Furious franchise, an impassioned inclusion of John Denver music (in a year where every movie from Okja to Free Fire seems bent on honoring the long gone folk musician), and so on. It’s perfectly fitting, then, that the film pauses dead in its tracks for the National Anthem at the top of its centerpiece NASCAR race and makes frequent references to Memorial Day & American veterans. Anyone who’s made uneasy by the idea of a wealthy British actor dressing up in the guise of a poor American Southerner or the image of a pig feet dunking contest at a local fair is missing the larger picture of Soderbergh’s love for these characters and their environment. He’s having fun with them for sure, but not necessarily at their expense. The great joy of the film is watching them get one over on a larger corporation with the limited means of a discounted underdog; the movie is on their side.

-Brandon Ledet