A lot of miserable things happened around February 2020, around the time it was announced that Rian Johnson’s Knives Out would be receiving a sequel. Make of that what you will.
The film – still playing in some theatres thanks Hollywood’s postponing of several blockbuster releases in 2020 – has already grossed $309 million against a budget of $40 million, holds an approval rating of 97% based on 442 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and even gained a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards. It is, whatever I have to say, an unmitigated success. It is also completely without character – a glitzy husk of a film, devoid of any charisma or creativity.
What seems to have distracted most of the film’s proponents is the all-star cast – which is also probably where most of that $40 million budget went – but we spend so little time with each of them, nobody really has the time to chew the scenery, or get their teeth into any meaty dialogue beyond some ham-fisted attempts at some pretty boiler-plate political commentary. You know the stuff, the safe Hollywood truism that everyone on ‘either side’ of every debate is essentially out for themselves – and those who keep their noses clean and stay out of it are the smart ones.*
Daniel Craig’s performance is emblematic of the showbiz sleight of hand at the heart of the film’s success; a horrendous attempt at a Southern lilt largely seeming to have baffled viewers into thinking they saw something approaching a ‘character’ in the shape of Benoit Blanc. Looking back on any film, the strength of a character’s construction can be confirmed with one simple test – without referring to how they look or sound, describe what they are like. I defy anyone to tell me anything about Craig’s bizarre Blanc, other than he has a wobbly accent that lapses into British received pronunciation at the first sign of trouble, and he solves crimes.
Looking at other famous fictional detectives, we have no such trouble. Hercule Poirot is a vain, arrogant man, who takes great pride in the way he is perceived by others. Inspector Morse is sullen, moody, yet secretly a bit of a softy. Sherlock Holmes is a prick. What we know about Blanc is entirely surface level – and in a film where almost the entire supporting cast is an absolute shower of bastards, we need him to have something relatable we can latch onto, something we can relate to in order to guide us through this strange and harsh environment.
Instead, we get that from Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, the nurse of Harlan Thrombey – who spends the duration of the film as the chief suspect in his murder. It is relatively easy to rule her out from the point of the viewer, since away from the other characters we still see her behave as a saint, while a rather lazy piece of Johnson McGuffin means she brings up her breakfast whenever she tries to lie. The problem with having her as the anchor to a broader franchise is that it is very unlikely she will feature in further instalments, meaning the one character we were able to grow attached to will not be present in the sequel, while we are left in the uncomfortable company of Benoit Blanc – the awkward step-father of the cast, who we know nothing about, and seems to have nothing to say to us.
After a flabby two hour run-time, punctuated with protracted flash-back scenes seemingly put in place to stretch out Knives Out and give some of the more aimless characters something to do – whether or not that serves the plot – we don’t know who the hell Blanc is. When Daniel Craig returns as the Kentucky Fried Detective in the inevitable sequel, I do hope there is some kind of effort to change that. Otherwise, this series is destined to remain stuck in its current rut – a C- film, dolled up to be presented as an A+.
*Interestingly the film makes a point of deriding the myth that immigrants who keep their heads down and work hard are inevitably rewarded by America’s system of law and order. Then it completely endorses that myth with its ending, an hour later.