Movie Reviews

Knives Out: Hollywood’s Apology for Murder on the Orient Express

Everyone loves a good murder-mystery. That much is obvious. All you need to do is turn on your TV at any given moment, and you’d be immediately bombarded with an entire library of detective shows, programs on homicide, unsolved cold-cases, or any number of other nefarious and gruesome crimes. CSI, NCIS, Sherlock, hell, even House all spring from the same simple kernel of truth in entertainment: We just can’t help but to be fascinated by the act of investigation, criminal or otherwise. And for as long as it’s been a staple in primetime television programming, it’s nothing compared to how long it’s dominated literature. Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Edger Allen Poe, and countless others pioneered a genre which has ceased to wane in popularity over the decades and decades they’ve been at the forefront of popular culture. The influence of this particular type of story has even bled into other mediums as well. For instance, Batman wouldn’t exist, nor would now-seminal comic works like Watchmen have been able to catch the attention of the public had it not been for their already-established interest in the art of detection. In short, detectives are simply timelessly entertaining.

But unfortunately, it seems this genre has far weaker legs in cinema than in television or traditional print media. Long gone is the heyday of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, the hard-boiled and gritty detective films of the 50s, or the classic, trope-defying hilarity of later, more satirical films like Clue. In the past few decades, I’m hard-pressed to really think of any significant entries into the genre’s library, at least with any real success. You could maybe count a few of Shane Black’s films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Nice Guys, but I’d consider them to be more dark comedies than anything, and really reflect more the stylings of the 1970s cop drama than a classic whodunit. So I was genuinely surprised, and fairly pleased, to hear that Kenneth Branagh was making a new adaption of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous examples of the genre, Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh is an extremely talented Shakespearean actor and director, and his particular style was a perfect fit for the more posh, refined type of detective story that Christie was so fond of telling. Though not quite as dark as Doyle’s Holmes novels, yet just as intelligent and intricate, Christie’s adventures too followed a brilliant detective figure, the dignified and highly particular Hercule Poirot, who Branagh himself was announced to play in the upcoming adaption.

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As excited as I was by the concept of the film, and all of the names that slowly became attached to it, I had a bad feeling about Orient Express from the moment the first trailer dropped. Despite Branagh’s more classical sensibilities, and the somewhat high-class nature of the source material, I was baffled when the first teaser for the film was set to some terrible Imagine Dragons song, like a Super Bowl car commercial. That’s almost never a good sign; It means that the studio was trying to market the film to as wide an audience as possible, which inevitably also means that it’s either been massively dumbed-down, or made to be as generic as possible. All of the posters were also horribly photoshopped and incredibly generic. To be perfectly honest, I had no interest in seeing it, at least while it played in theaters. But, as is often the case, I ended up seeing it anyway, thanks to someone who’s responsible for quite a few of my worst theater-going experiences, yet whom I never seem say “no” to.

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And, as I suspected, it was supremely disappointing, even with what I assumed to be my fairly manageable expectations to begin with. It’s not that the film was bad exactly. Branagh’s talent as a director is difficult to stifle, even with sufficient studio meddling, I suspect, and it’s extremely well-made from a technical standpoint. But it certainly wasn’t good, either. If anything, it’s probably one of the most bland, uninspired films I’ve seen see a wide release in quite a while. It was so wholly unmemorable, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you anything specific about the film at all, had I not recently re-watched it for the purposes of this little rant.

Despite the sheer volume of talent in the film, both onscreen and off, one could hardly tell simply by watching. With a cast featuring the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, and Olivia Coleman, you’d expect the material would have to be relatively stellar to attract such an assortment of talent. Yet, none of them really do anything in the film. Their performances are about as phoned in as it gets, with only Michelle Pfeiffer ever really seeming to try and, well, act. Branagh shines as Poirot, though this is a small consolation when he really has no one else to play off of that’s performing on his level. Daisy Ridley is fine, in her first big post-The Force Awakens gig, but all of the other lesser-known actors in the film more or less disappear into the background. Johnny Depp is also there, which is about all I can say about him here, really. He exists in this film solely to die, being the titular Murder in question, and it seems like no other thought was given to his character outside of this fact. So not exactly an Oscar contender, in terms of its actors, suffice it to say.

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But while the performances were lackluster, that could at the very least be excused with an engaging plot. Plenty of subpar films have been saved by, at the very least, an original premise. Well, considering that Express was an adaption, and one that had been done several times before by this point, that was already out the window. So the only other option would be either to change the existing story in an interesting way, or to at least find some way to elevate the source material in a new and exciting way, by modernizing the setting, for instance. The film chooses to do none of that, and instead simply rehashes the same story that many have already experienced several times before. At that point, if you aren’t going to do anything new with the material, why even bother in the first place?

That very fact leads me to what is the film’s most unforgivable sin, in my opinion: It’s just such a bore. A mystery, particularly one revolving around a murder and a killer-at-large, should have a strong foundation in suspense and intrigue, or else the premise is painfully shallow, only extending as far as the literal plot itself, and not taking that crucial step forward in engaging the audience as well through tone. People watching the film should feel the same eagerness to catch the killer as the characters in the film, experience the same anxiety as the potential victims, and ultimately have the same sense of catharsis and vindication when the killer is caught at the end. If a film doesn’t emotionally involve its audience, especially a film with a premise that hinges on investigation, discovery, and the consequence of violence, then it becomes an incredibly passive experience for the viewer, like watching a documentary. Murder on the Orient Express suffers from all of this, and more. I never once felt invested in the story, either emotionally or logically, and found myself being completely disinterested in both its characters and the mystery at the center of the story as a result.

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In spite of its middling reviews, Murder on the Orient Express still managed to rake in a roughly $300 million profit worldwide, so a sequel has been announced adapting another of Christie’s Poirot stories, Death on the Nile. In the meantime, there hasn’t really been another attempt at a similar “whodunit”-style film, at least in the mainstream, which I have to imagine is at least partially due to Express’s lukewarm reception. Until recently, that is, with the release of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. As usual, I’ll wear my biases on my sleeve here: I’m a huge fan of Rian Johnson. I thought Looper was brilliant, his work on Breaking Bad is some of the best in the series (which is saying something), and despite how enormously divisive it’s become, I adored The Last Jedi. The idea of him doing his own take on a classic, Clue-style mystery was immediately attractive in my eyes. But I also acknowledge that his writing tends to meander a bit, and, as was the case with The Last Jedi, he often sacrifices storytelling for set-pieces. With a murder-mystery, there really isn’t any room for a flashy, extended action scenes or high-concept visual gimmicks, with their emphasis on efficient, lean storytelling. So as enticing as the concept was, I knew there was certainly room for error.

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Thankfully, my paranoia was completely unfounded. Knives Out succeeds, systematically, in every single arena in which Orient Express failed, and even elevates those few elements that did work from the latter film. It serves as almost a rebuttal against the earlier film, operating as a how-to guide on how to properly execute a murder-mystery narrative. Right from the earliest moments of the film, the cast of Knives makes that of its counterpart (which, may I remind you, includes some of the finest screen actors alive right now) look downright amateurish in comparison. There isn’t a single weak link in the bunch. Christopher Plummer plays Harlan, the elderly patriarch of the Thrombey empire, is instantly likable and endearing, with a genuine warmth to him that makes his untimely death at the start of the film a legitimately engaging premise. His children, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette, are all hilarious. Jamie Lee Curtis, as usual, is the more nuanced and level-headed of the bunch, while Shannon plays somewhat against type as a bumbling, impotent father to a Reddit-browsing, right-wing, neo-Nazi son. Collette’s character, in stark contrast to her gut-wrenching performance in Hereditary last year, plays a parody of wealthy Instagram influencer and self-proclaimed self-help guru, who plays fantastically against Shannon and his burgeoning skinhead. Rounding out the cast is Chris Evans, playing the eldest Thrombey grandson, in a wonderfully dickish performance that he clearly enjoys himself in. It’s a great post-Avengers role for him, helping to shake that all-American image that has undoubtedly become his calling-card as of late.

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Outside of the family, we have the film’s investigators, summoned to the Thrombey mansion to shed some light into Harlan’s sudden, mysterious death. Lakeith Stanfield is, surprisingly, the film’s straight-man, who serves as the only real outside grounding force in the film. He’s the only character who seems to realize just how ridiculous the events in the film truly are. He is accompanied by a fanboying partner who spends most of the film gushing over the mystery novels which the Thrombeys have built their legacy on. But the highlight of the group is, unquestionably, Benoit Blanc, a southern stereotype of a private-eye played by Daniel Craig. If you’ve seen Logan Lucky, you know Craig can pull off (hilariously, I might add) this type of character exceptionally well, hamming it up in as much an exaggerated style as, fittingly, most portrayals of Hercule Poirot tend to be. He almost a walking, talking cartoon character, yet still maintains a strange sort of perceptive insight that still makes him believable as the notorious detective the film tells us he is. I would honestly be 100% onboard for a series of films following Blanc as he bumbles around, solving bizarre cases, and spouting nonsensical, bayou-born epithets and nuggets of wisdom.

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Whereas the standout player in Express, that of Branagh’s delightfully camp Poirot, was of no surprise to absolutely anyone, myself included, Knives Out’s star performance was one that I in no way expected at all. Ana de Armas plays the young, part-time nurse/caretaker to the elder Thrombey, and is by far the real breakout talent in the film. While the rest of the cast plays more or less varying degrees of comic relief and exposition, de Armas is very much the emotional core of the film, a role which she performs wonderfully. She’s sweet and sincere, and very grounded, in the midst of the campy, exaggerated chaos the rest of the cast revels in from scene to scene. At times, it almost seems like her character is almost in an entirely different film as everyone else, were it not for a bizarre quirk of her physiology which causes her to vomit every time she lies. I had only ever seen her in what were essentially eye candy roles, like Blade Runner 2049 or Knock Knock, and had, admittedly, assumed that was likely the only roles that she could really pull off. Her recent casting as the next Bond girl in the upcoming No Time to Die only cemented that theory for me. Yet her performance in Knives Out proves that she’s certainly much, much more than another pretty face, and I genuinely hope that this is serves as a jumping-off point for much meatier roles.

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Murder on the Orient Express had a huge handicap, again, in that it’s shackled to an existing property. That means that it can’t really deviate into any unique or original territory without inevitably upsetting fans of the novel, leaving it with little choice on how to proceed narratively. Knives Out has no such limitations. And while its basic premise is relatively familiar, that of a murdered family patriarch with a large inheritance at stake, its approach is so fresh and lively that it hardly matters. There isn’t a single moment in this film that felt stale, or like it was a rehash of things we’ve already seen before. I hate to go directly to the obvious comparison, but it is very much like Clue, in the sense that it takes such a common and well-known premise and then proceeds to deconstruct it and turn in on itself, to the point where it becomes something else entirely.

The film is, at its core, a murder-mystery, so naturally, its real strength is going to lie in just how that mystery is unraveled. And that is truly where the genius in Knives Out lies. I’ve been comparing it to The Prestige a lot, which sounds odd considering their narrative content probably couldn’t be any more different from one another. But The Prestige, as a complimentary element to its subject matter, approaches its plot like a magic trick: The point is misdirection. As Michael Caine’s character in the film says: “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” Within the context of the film, this refers to the fact that the magic tricks within the film, as well as the greater frame narrative, all share the same clever, manipulative little trick: You show the answer, the secret, to the audience, outright. Only, they’re so preoccupied with trying to solve the problem, that they overlook anything they deem to be too simple. In other words, the twist can be hidden in plain sight, even stated out loud directly to the audience, and they won’t believe it. They’ll either pass it off as a red herring, or assume that it’s part of a complex misdirect.

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Knives Out operates in much the same way: Its twist, the solution to its great mystery, is extremely obvious, but only once it’s revealed. In the moment, while the film is progressing, it throws so many possibilities at you, so many branching stories and variables, that you find yourself focusing on some grand endgame, rather than the relatively simple solution that’s been staring you in the face the entire time. And Knives Out actually takes this a step further, by giving you the answer to its biggest question early on, and then asking the audience to work backwards to figure out just how it happened. It’s a bit more complicated than I’m making it sound, and it’s certainly not a simplistic plot, but it also ends on a logical, obvious-in-hindsight conclusion that is supported organically by everything that happens over the course of the film. It’s a film that’s self-aware enough to know that the audience is trying to get ahead of it at every turn, and is clever enough to subvert them every time. I personally had quite a few convoluted guesses as to just how the film would end, yet ended up being dead wrong, which I absolutely loved. It’s always incredibly fun to be outsmarted by a film.

That leads me to the next big advantage Knives has over Express: It’s just fun. Plain and simple. Whereas Murder on the Orient Express was a slog to get through, one that had me checking my phone to see how much of the runtime was left, Knives Out is so engaging that I hardly could tell that two hours had passed once the credits began rolling. It’s a film that know exactly how to shift its tone to match its story and its pacing, always keeping the audience in the exact emotional state needed to make a scene work. At times it’s hilarious, with much of the comedy focused on Daniel Craig’s “Kentucky-fried” private eye and his peculiar, homespun manner of speaking. But it also knows when to shift gears and really nail home more somber, more emotional beats as well, often veering into territory that’s genuinely poignant and touching. The end result is a film-going experience that leads its audience to its next destination, enthusiastically so, rather than dragging them, begrudgingly, along the way.

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Combine all of these individual components with actual, relevant thematic elements critiquing, among other things, the American stance on immigration and the wealth gap, and you’ve got a winning formula for a captivation, charming, unceasingly funny “And Then There Were None”-esque tale of intrigue. If I had to lodge any complaint towards the film, it’s that some of it’s political commentary is a bit too on the nose. In fairness, this was likely the point, in order to accentuate just how much like caricatures some these characters are, but I still can’t help but feel that some of these jokes just aren’t going to age well, in an otherwise timeless-feeling film. But other than that, Knives Out is a borderline perfect new addition to the whodunit canon, one that hopefully opens the door for more directors to try their hand in the genre. I can only imagine what, say, an Edgar Wright or a Wes Anderson version of this story would potentially look like. With as little impact as Murder on the Orient Express had, it’s just, at the end of the day, nice to see that there’s still some life left in the premise.

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