Martin Scorsese’s comments about the Marvel Cinematic Universe have, by their very nature of being critical of something so popular and dominant, been mostly misconstrued as targeting Marvel, and Marvel only. But his real criticism is not about the MCU, as much as it’s about the franchise nature of all of modern Hollywood. The notion of franchises permeating all of Hollywood’s major output is something that you can see manifest as soon as filmmakers and actors are able to, for one reason or another, escape the franchise world if only for a short project. A good example arrives in theaters this week: Rian Johnson’s newest, best film, Knives Out.
Knives Out is a whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie, gussied up for modern times. (In spite of its throwback appeal, Knives Out unquestionably takes place in the present.) Its massive ensemble cast includes everyone from Christopher Plummer to Jamie Lee Curtis to Michael Shannon. But its two biggest stars – Daniel Craig and Chris Evans – are best known for their work as two of the biggest franchise heroes of all time. So maybe their performances in Knives Out are so extremely delightful for just one reason: they’re both playing wildly against type.
This post contains spoilers for Knives Out.
A Case of Foul Play
The very nature of Knives Out allows for the massive cast to each get a moment or two to shine, with only a few who could legitimately be called main characters. The real lead is Marta (Ana de Armas), the caregiver to elderly mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Plummer), who was found dead in his study merely hours after his 85th birthday party. Though the local cops are happy to write it off as a suicide, when the main action begins a week after Thrombey’s death, his extended family and Marta are surprised to find a new player in the mix. That would be the Southern private investigator Benoit Blanc (Craig), who was hired by an anonymous benefactor and believes that the handful of clues available suggest Thrombey was murdered.
To anyone who knows Rian Johnson’s other films (yes, even including his wonderful 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi – all haters can stand to the left on that one, a major franchise entry of its own), you know that his scripts are often as precise and carefully thought out as the direction or performances. Knives Out is no different, setting up in its first act a number of minor mysteries before taking no time at all in its second act to reveal a good chunk of the answer to the question, “Who killed Harlan Thrombey?” It’s a creative decision a la the 1970s-era mystery TV show Columbo, wherein the audience would be privy to the murderer’s identity long before the rumpled eponymous detective ever was.
So it goes in Knives Out, as we learn that Marta is responsible for what happened…mostly. After the party ends, Marta and Harlan go to his study to play a harmless game; as Marta delivers his nightly medication, she realizes too late that she’s accidentally given him a lethal dose of morphine, inadvertently switching medications. Harlan, who clearly adores Marta on a platonic level, is lucid enough to give her specific instructions so that she’s not seen as the guilty party before slicing his own throat in such a way to imply that it was only ever a suicide.
So, You Got Accused of Murder
The tension comes less from knowing how Harlan died, then, but how Marta can hide it from the drawling Blanc, played by Craig in a masterfully funny performance that recalls his prisoner from Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky just a couple years ago. There, too, Craig played a Southern-fried character with an outrageous accent, the dialogue amplified by the gusto with which he portrayed someone so far from the curt, tense, and square-jawed James Bond. Blanc is a more intelligent character, setting the Thrombey family at ill ease in his introductory scenes by sitting behind two local cops (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Egan) and noodling at a piano to signal that he wants certain questions asked of the Thrombey family. The accent work isn’t flawless, but then, that’s part of the joke: we all know Daniel Craig isn’t American, so his Southern accent is both cartoonish and utterly delightful.
Utter delight also is present in Chris Evans’ performance. Evans plays a character we largely hear about before we meet him. Ransom Drysdale-Thrombey, the son of Linda and Richard (Curtis and Don Johnson), is immediately portrayed as the black sheep of the family, a slacker who has relied on mooching off his grandfather for his whole life. In snatches of flashbacks to the party, we see that Harlan and Ransom had some kind of intense conversation before the younger man left the party. We even learn that Ransom was apparently so mad that he skipped Harlan’s funeral. He only returns to the proceedings for the reading of Harlan’s will, where everyone else is gobsmacked to learn that Harlan left all of his assets…to Marta. (Ransom, notably, can’t stop laughing, soon after having gleefully told his entire family to “eat shit” in a moment you may remember from the film’s first trailer.)
Where the rest of the family – also including sister-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her daughter (Katherine Langford), son Walt (Shannon) and his own child (Jaeden Martell) – is infuriated that “the help” would get Harlan’s assets, Ransom is surprisingly willing to help out. Once he helps Marta escape the angry throng, Ransom reveals that when he learned he’d be cut off from getting more money from Harlan, he had a come-to-Jesus moment wherein he realized the possibility of being on his own was thrilling. For a good chunk of the performance, Ransom somewhat recalls a more modern take on Captain America — he’s the only one willing to listen, truly listen, to Marta and treat her like a person.
The Big Reveal
But just as Craig is subverting his own image as James Bond as Benoit Blanc, so too is Evans subverting how we see him. When we first meet Ransom, we’re meeting someone much closer to the real guy – in the final act, Benoit reveals that he’s deduced that Ransom was his mysterious benefactor, and is in fact truly responsible for Harlan’s death. As revealed in cathartic flashbacks, Ransom was the first to find out that Harlan was giving everything to Marta, and though he did have an epiphany, it wasn’t remotely positive: he wanted to kill Harlan and pin the death on Marta, knowing that a specific Massachusetts law would nullify the will and leave Marta homeless. He even switched the medications for real. Benoit points out that Marta, at some gut level, knew which was the right medication and didn’t even give Harlan a real overdose; she just thought she did, thus ensuring that Ransom’s machinations were going according to plan.
After Ransom’s found out, he tries his best to kill Marta once and for all, grabbing a knife off a terrifyingly designed chair in Harlan’s house (think of the Game of Thrones chair, but with lots of sharp knives pointing directly at whoever’s sitting on it). Not that we needed to see Evans shamelessly wielding a knife against an innocent woman, but it’s the icing on the cake in terms of how much he seems to enjoy shaking up the perception of being an all-American hero. Plus, as Ransom learns the hard way in a very funny moment, the knife is a prop and doesn’t hurt Marta at all.
Part of what makes Knives Out so much fun is watching these well-respected actors, actors we can’t help but know from their massive franchise success, doing something so totally original and against type. Benoit Blanc and Ransom Drysdale-Thrombey are both distinctive characters while owing a debt to the mystery archetypes that came before them. Blanc, in particular, is a truly delightful invention. He’s a very shrewd investigator, having become so famous as to get profiled by The New Yorker, but he’s also an oddball who sings along to Stephen Sondheim showtunes and categorizes cases as donut holes. Perhaps the irony of watching Daniel Craig go so far afield from his work as James Bond, in such a singular role, is that it’d be awfully nice to see him play Benoit Blanc again.
A Future Without Franchises
Craig, at least, had a history before his work as 007 of playing characters who don’t fit his chiseled looks. (His sniveling bad guy in the Sam Mendes Mob drama Road to Perdition is an excellent performance that’s a far, far cry from Bond.) Evans hasn’t appeared in as many films that don’t capitalize on his boy-next-door good looks, whether it’s playing dramatic leads in films like Gifted and Before We Go or other genre fare such as Snowpiercer. The most notable counterexample is his supporting role in the 2012 Mob drama The Iceman (where he co-starred with Shannon). Otherwise, you’re getting to watch Evans cut loose in Knives Out, in such a way to imply that he’s very, very glad to have Steve Rogers in the rearview.
Craig, of course, isn’t quite finished with James Bond. The next 007 film opens in April, titled No Time to Die. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the new film includes a couple new Bond girls, one of whom is played by none other than Ana de Armas. Craig and de Armas have a charming, affable, and utterly platonic chemistry in Knives Out — once Benoit learns that Marta literally pukes if she lies, he realizes her value and treats her as the Watson to his Holmes — that makes the fun even more heightened.
“Heightened” is a good word for the entirety of Knives Out, a film dead-set on blending its dark mystery with snappy one-liners and visual gags. (The final shot of the film, in which Marta looks out at the Thrombey family from the top of what is now her house, holding an oft-seen mug with the words “My House, My Rules, My Coffee” facing outwards, is a hell of a punchline.) Both Daniel Craig and Chris Evans, like the rest of the film’s ensemble, are playing their roles to the rafters and doing so with charm and brio. Though we still have another Bond movie with Craig to come, he’s likely going to move on soon after. And the way that he and Evans perform, it seems clear they’re both happy to be away from franchises at least for a short while.
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