Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 9

Knives Out, Greed, and Real.

All Festival long, I’ve been waiting for that A-grade film.  The film whose greatness is so evident, the film which holds me unbroken under its spell for the entire time it plays, the film that leaves me in a state of heightened emotion – whether that be elated joy, brink of tears, or crushing melancholy – for the entire break time between screenings, the film in other words.  Every year I’ve been to this Festival, I have found at least one, last year I got extraordinarily lucky and found three, but with the two-thirds mark in sight for 2019 I had yet to find such a film.  Oh, sure, I’d seen a lot of films I really liked and quite a few I’d loved, but nothing so far had given me that, to quote Hotel Transylvania of all bloody things, zing.  No Arrival, no Breadwinner, no Widows.  The 2019 instalment of the Festival was starting to seem as if it would provide no such film.  But then, at 12:30pm on Day 9 of my 13 down here, I found it.  Ladies, gentlemen and others, I am pleased to report that the search is over.  Knives Out (Grade: A) is an A-grade film.

Rian Johnson’s love letter to the whodunnits of Agatha Christie and Richard Knox, plus the genre’s various descendants and evolutions and even parodies over the decades, is an utter masterpiece of popcorn filmmaking.  The kind of movie that’s so raucously fun, so proudly bleachers-playing, so sincerely campy that seeing it with a sold-out crowd is an absolute must.  The narrative’s constant twists and turns and frequent reshaping of itself into something entirely different from what it was before yet masterfully returning to its origin point by the close, and the sheer virtuosity of the executions of said, that collective audience reactions may actually heighten one’s appreciation of the craft on display.  It’s like watching a magic trick unfold directly in front of your eyes, the audacity of the misdirection coupled with the ever so sleight-of-hand causing the eventual execution to be so completely delightful that I spent pretty much the entire final 20 minutes having to restrain myself from spontaneously applauding.  Other Press & Industry folks had no such qualms.

Of course, trying to meaningfully talk about Knives Out in order to make all of this effusive praise seem somewhat less than hyperbolic is a tricky-to-near-impossible task and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling this ride for anybody.  Even the initial logline – the stinky-rich family of a crime novelist patriarch are called back to the family estate one week after his untimely death on his 85th birthday, officially classed as a suicide, to answer some questions on elements of the case that don’t add up – quickly gets flipped on its head in ways which go beyond absolutely every single rotten member of the family obviously having a motive and something vital they’re not telling.  Johnson’s film spends equal amounts of time upending, cracking wise at, and lovingly indulging the expected tropes, structures, and visual signifiers of the whodunnit in a manner which can only come from a superfan of the genre who respects it entirely.  Lesser films would’ve relied on the murder victim being a crime novelist, plus the State Trooper who provides support throughout the case being a huge mark for the victim’s work and the genre as a whole, to structure the mystery or insufferably nudge the audience in the ribs for being smarter than a generic example of the form.  Johnson instead uses them for fun shading and clever misdirection.

Rather, his updates to and interrogations of the class, racial and gender politics that have been embedded within such works since their heydays as trashy dime novels in the 30s come largely from transplanting a story like this to the modern day.  The Thrombeys are privileged cannibalistic assholes, but they are very much a 2019 kind of privileged cannibalistic asshole.  Some gesture at being a surface-level kind of wokeness which serves only to score them the moral high-ground in arguments, others spout off Trumpian rhetoric or spend their nights “masturbating to dinosaur porn” and livestreaming other members’ vicious sniping for views, but all are hypocritical assholes when the chips are down.  Not a single one of them is honest or altruistic, save for the deceased patriarch (Christopher Plummer) appalled by what’s become of his children, and all of them have a reckoning headed their way which causes them to take turns throwing each and every single person even remotely connected to the household under the bus in an effort to keep a hold of what they’ve got.

So, whilst the smoke and mirrors and machinery powering the film makes it a thrill to watch, there is a lot of substance which rewards repeat viewings besides marvelling at the impeccable structure of it all.  But, also, it cannot be stressed enough just how fucking good the filmmaking of Knives Out is.  Johnson keeps the action punchy and moving; even when the narrative inevitably doubles back on itself to fill in important gaps, he finds a deliriously off-beat way to shoot and deliver it.  You could teach courses on his usage of humour in this thing, managing to mine many of his biggest comedy beats – like a key suspect who is physically incapable of telling a lie without spewing chunks, or a game of fetch with crucial evidence – for nail-biting tension later on in the narrative.  He’s practically Hitchcockian with regards to how he handles tension, the constant noose-tightening and slipping providing a thrillingly unpredictable game of cat and mouse, particularly as the potential realisation sets in that maybe we’re dealing less with genius private investigators and criminal masterminds than a collection of dumbasses who all operate under the misguided assumption that they’re even remotely capable.

Bob Ducsay’s editing frankly deserves to have the relevant awards categories collectively Fedex’d to his doorstep now to save time and postage, Steve Yedlin’s cinematography nails the manor-parlour Clue vibe of proceedings to such an exact degree that it’s legitimately jarring when a smartphone enters the shot, and every last performance is exquisite – standouts being Daniel Craig’s “Foghorn Leghorn CSI: KFC” private investigator, Jamie Lee Curtis’s formidable would-be matriarch, and Ana de Armas doing perhaps career-best work as the movie’s genuinely sweet emotional centre that keeps things from devolving into an admittedly fun exercise in seeing utter shits be the worst to each other.  Knives Out is a riotous masterwork.  I came out of my screening high off the energies it provides for a solid hour and I honestly kinda just wanted to go straight back in and watch it again, to try and catch something I’d missed or relive a hilarious barbed exchange or just drink in that production design some more.  It’s absolutely bloody brilliant, runaway Best of the Festival as the last hours tick down, and one of the best films of the year period.

Thanks to an absolutely bizarre scheduling decision, one which saw two back-to-back major press screenings at the Leicester Square ODEON with a turn-around time of thirty minutes and where the Knives Out screening happened in an overlap between screening block one’s films hitting their midpoint and screening block two’s all starting minutes before Knives Out finished, there was a sense of antsiness in the climax of the day’s first film.  Leicester Square passers-by may have witnessed the hilarious sight of hundreds of Press & Industry folks all busting out their best 100M dash at approximately 9:50 for, as soon as Greed (Grade: B-) flashed up its “directed by Michael Winterbottom” card, there was a genuine heave straight for the exits to hit the Knives Out queue before cut off.  We all definitely felt a collective sense of shame in harbouring these feelings, though, since the film ends with a series of title cards explaining the appalling wage, work and living conditions in sweatshops and clothes factories in developing parts of the world, encouraged by unnamed fashion brands, the kind of bitter pill snuck into the credits that’s not too dissimilar from what Adam McKay did in The Other Guys.

Originally, as recently spilled by Winterbottom to The Guardian, these cards were meant to specifically call out people like Philip Green & Mike Ashley and companies such as Topshop and H&M by name until Sony put the firm kibosh on that whole idea.  Maybe they were worried that Winterbottom’s capitalism satire would do more than shoot a series of easy fish in particularly wide barrels with especially large cannons if they left them in.  Either way, Greed doesn’t need to mention them by name for anyone watching to get the message that Winterbottom does not think very highly of Green and his ilk.  Steve Coogan’s potential-libel-suit dodging Sir Richard McCreadie – proudly self-nicknamed “Greedy McCreadie” for obvious reasons – is a multi-billion pound fashion mogul about to celebrate his 65th birthday on a Greek island with a giant Rome-themed celeb-heavy bash based around Gladiator (one of his favourite movies) designed to both massage his enormous ego and repair his strength standing in the tabloids after a recent government inquiry into his long history of asset-stripping, failed businesses, and altogether shady-yet-technically-legal business practices.

Winterbottom, rarely the most focussed of filmmakers without regular collaborator Coogan by his side, aims his satire wide and broad: taking on snobbish Etonian types, the inhumane practices of the fashion industry, the double-talk wheeling-and-intimidating of modern capitalism, the immateriality of wealth as it largely just gets redistributed over and over again to the same twenty-six guys, vapid “reality” TV shows, the refugee crisis that those best financially equipped to help want either shooed off or put to work as near-enough slave labour, the wilful complicity of celebrities in plying their trade to economic tyrants…  And that’s all without getting onto the birthday celebrations themselves, building recurring comic bits out of cheap undocumented labour failing to build a replica colosseum in time, an uncomfortable lion, the journalist (David Mitchell) hired to write McCreadie’s sycophantic biography continuously being roped in to deal with preparations, McCreadie’s disturbed Oedipal son (Asa Butterfield), the reappearance of McCreadie’s first wife (Isla Fisher), McCreadie’s recent ghastly teeth-whitening he can’t stop showing at every opportunity…

It’s a lot and extremely broad and unfocussed, often getting so fixated on the party celebrations and organisation that the more urgent points Winterbottom wants to make about the unethical business practices which fund all this bad taste hedonism threaten to get lost beneath the 50 other pot-shots he’s taking.  But Greed is, admittedly, pretty funny.  Coogan can play this kind of prick in his sleep and Jamie Blackley does an excellent job as McCreadie’s younger self, whilst Shirley Henderson steals scenes as McCreadie’s encouraging Irish mother.  Winterbottom’s direction is also stylish and propulsive if perhaps a little too reliant on really on-the-nose needle-drops – three guesses as to which ABBA song gets needle-dropped twice, first two don’t count.  Unlike with, say, Sorry to Bother You, nothing about Greed feels particularly transgressive or vital, the vaunted title cards I doubt are likely to spur anyone into action the same way Boots Riley’s clarion klaxon might, and the Greek tragedy comparisons feel particularly laboured when slotted next to something like Succession.  I enjoyed the film as it was running, though, and it’s easily Winterbottom’s best work in half a decade, a statement that actually means something given how notoriously prolific he is.  Plus, it’s nice to watch an actual funny movie this deep into the Festival.  Variety being the spice of life, and all that.

On that note, let’s kick Bad Education (not that one) coverage down the road for another day, in an effort to make sure I don’t repeat the same thematic talking points over and over again in the same article, and talk about the other Tuesday film I saw but didn’t have time to write up on the day.  Real (Grade: C-) by Aki Omoshaybi, a British actor making his directorial debut, tells the tale of Jamie (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a recovering alcoholic single mother between jobs, and Kyle (Omoshaybi), a hustling ex-con also between jobs, as they fall for each other whilst trying to keep their heads above the poverty line they otherwise fall painfully under.  Both attempting in vain to put up an image of having at least a modicum of status and wealth – in particular, Kyle is technically homeless yet goes about everywhere in a suit hoping to convince everyone, most of all himself, that he’s got it well off – out of fear that their actual poverty will drive the other away.

The film functions at its best when digging into that specific angle, the unspoken subtext in Kyle’s suit or the subtle ways their class anxieties make themselves known when, for example, ordering at a restaurant.  Because otherwise Real is a well-intentioned failure.  It’s a very static film, which is somewhat intentional given that our characters often aren’t allowed to progress in a meaningful way thanks to their restricted economic state, but also manifests in more actively problematic areas.  The central romance is underdeveloped and too often comes off as Kyle pressuring Jamie into one.  The third act, perhaps due to the film running 75 minutes even though it does not have enough developed ideas to sustain a length of that magnitude, devolves very quickly into somewhat cartoonish melodrama, particularly in the execution of a key element of Kyle’s backstory.  And there are some really, really wooden performances plaguing this thing in the supporting roles – everybody other than Bennet-Warner, Amy Manson (who plays Jamie’s best friend, Tash), and sometimes Omoshaybi (who oscillates wildly in performance quality) is pretty bad.

In the post-screening Q&A, Omoshaybi named his directorial influences as Barry Jenkins, Andrea Arnold, and Sean Baker.  Watching Real, I got way more of a Ken Loach vibe from him, if Loach couldn’t afford a tripod for his often-ugly camerawork.  This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, for the record.  Omoshaybi already displays far more of an understanding of modern low-income life than self-professed man of the people Loach has in his most recent films and, even if the execution suffers from stiff acting and slapdash scene composition, he’s clearly less slavishly devoted to misery than Loach currently is.  There’s some potential in Omoshaybi as both a writer and director.  It’s just only evident in Real in fits and starts.

Tomorrow: Cory Finley’s Bad Education (not that one) for real this time, and Michael B. Jordan takes on the death penalty in Destin Daniel Cretton’s tearjerking Just Mercy.

Callie Petch has got the desert in their toenail.

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