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Watching The Movies: ‘Knives Out’

A mystery with a sense of humor

I walked into “Knives Out” expecting a fast-paced murder comedy based on watching the trailer for the movie. That is not what I got.

That isn’t to say that “Knives Out” isn’t worth your time. I and my teenage son both thoroughly enjoyed the film despite it not being what either of us expected.

The movie centers around the suicide of a murder mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer). As the police attempt to close the case, a private detective, Benoit Blanc, played by 007 alum Daniel Craig with a syrupy Southern accent, shows up after being hired by a mysterious client. Blanc probes the family relationships and turns up a number of possible motives that the star-studded family had for wanting Harlan dead.

Unexpectedly, the plot centers on Harlan’s nurse, Marta, who comes from a Hispanic immigrant family. Ana de Armas, who is a Cuban immigrant in real life, is a newcomer whose first big English-speaking role seems to have been in 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049.” Immigration policy figures into the plot as Marta’s mother is revealed to be an illegal immigrant. The knowledge that members of her family could be deported understandably affects Marta’s actions, even though she is herself what one of the other characters refers to as an “anchor baby.”

Immigration also figures into an uncomfortably awkward scene in which two branches of the family argue over immigration policy. Donald Trump is not mentioned by name, but the flower-child sister-in-law, played by Toni Collette, makes a Hitler reference and mentions children in cages. Harlan’s son-in-law, Richard, played by an almost-unrecognizable Don Johnson, argues that even illegals with good hearts should have consequences for breaking the law. The situation becomes even more awkward when he asks Marta for her opinion on the issue and praises her family for immigrating “the right way.” The two branches of the family trade partisan barbs such as calling each other “Nazis,” “social justice warriors,” and “snowflakes.”

Although the scene isn’t particularly pleasant, neither is it unfair. The arguments of both sides are true to form and could be taken from pretty much any internet discussion or comments thread on the subject. The discussion could probably have been taken word-for-word from any number of family discussions around the country over Thanksgiving and Christmas. The movie is evenhanded in its disdain for both political wings and the film is not a vehicle for attacks on Republicans or the president.

If there is a political message to the film, it is about the humanity of immigrants. The film doesn’t preach, but Marta and her family come across as sympathetic. To some, that will contrast with how they often see immigrants portrayed as murderers, drug-dealers, and criminals. Marta represents the silent majority of immigrants who are hardworking and law-abiding. While some immigration hardliners may not appreciate this compassionate portrayal of illegal immigration, it is relevant to the plot.

While the movie is not the slapstick comedy that I expected, it is darkly humorous. There were laugh-out-loud moments but the core of the movie is the investigation into Harlan’s death. If you want a more consistently funny murder-comedy, go watch “Clue,” the 1985 movie based on the popular board game starring Tim Curry and a plethora of ‘80s stars.

But that doesn’t mean you should skip “Knives Out.” While it isn’t laugh-a-minute, it is worth your time if you like the mystery genre. The movie is more like an episode of “Columbo” or “Murder She Wrote” than “Police Academy.”

There are no complaints about the craftsmanship of the movie. The acting is excellent on all levels and its fun to see the aging Johnson, Collette, and Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as Chris Evans playing the parts of spoiled rich brats. It is Craig and de Armas who steal the show, however.

“Knives Out” is a good movie. It is thought-provoking and keeps you guessing to the end. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it but know going in that it is not a lighthearted romp. With numerous plot twists, it’s also a good movie to see in a theater rather than watching on Netflix or Hulu in a setting with distractions.

In the end, “Knives Out” is a classic example of the mystery genre with a sense of humor.

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