The first warning sign this ostensible murder-mystery wasn’t going to succeed as you’d hoped (if not necessarily expected) came early. I like Daniel Craig – an actor with commendable presence if not commendable range. But the moment he opens his mouth to produce a dubious Southern accent that’s going to pervade the entire film, you know the direction is lacking the authoritative guile any project with higher aspirations demands. Which brings me to its crippling handicap. Rian Johnson had already served up a massive franchise turd with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – a film so insipidly directed and excruciatingly written you couldn’t believe he’d been given the gig. But I’m always inclined to give the benefit of doubt – corporate tentpoles have so many guidelines, so many mitigating factors, that judging a filmmaker solely on those terms would be doing them a disservice. On to save the day comes “Knives Out” – a low budget, star-studded genre piece with an independent sensibility. A chance then for the auteur to really show us their creative prowess. You think?
What initially promises to be an arch genre deconstruction dissipates into melodrama of the soppiest disposition, something no amount of lampshading can obfuscate. Johnson has no discernible flare – instead of cranking scenes up they flatten out. His style is televisual. And I wish I could say the same about his writing. Lesser artistes crowbar their ideas into frame in the most obvious syntax because they simply don’t have the capacity to do so any differently. Jarring attempts to sound contemporary (netflix! influencers!) are clumsy, secondary-school debating seminars about political issues (I’ve had more stirring conferences in beer-gardens) are wince-inducing, and beating your audience around the head with a woefully on-the-nose coda is completely inexcusable. To clarify, his politics are not my problem. A TV director and sub-TV writer making movies, let’s start there.
Edgar goes to Hollywood. Empty from the start, but for a time at least impressively assembled, like a hyper-budget music video bolted onto a screenplay. Ends up a disappointing bag of Americanese clichés it fails to subvert and only occasionally manages to undercut, careering wildly from thrill to spill with the sum cinematic impact of a less impressive music video. Come back to Blighty Ed.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
If the entire film had proceeded as the Dick Van Dyke Chim Marty Robbins Chiminey Western of its first anthology, I would have proceeded to smash the screen I was watching it on. Thankfully, that proved to be the most annoying part of it. What followed were a series of sweet but increasingly doomed vignettes, and once the memory of the opener had faded, I was slowly sucked into its faintly fantastical but violently real frontier vision – by the end I felt completely won over. Yet when I looked back at them, these six fragments seemed underwhelming – individually only one of them convinced me totally, one was a dud, one a set-up for a great punchline, while the rest spun their tales, sometimes funny, often sad. For once, however, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Though initially appearing scattershot and inconsequential – unlike the vacuous pornographic violence of Quentin Tarantino it resembles at face-value, Buster‘s murderous chaos is rendered meaningful by the heart imbued in its characters – its sting in the tail fairy tales building off of each other, revealing their shared secrets of a capricious world. Not scattershot, but calculated. The Brothers Grimm go out West.
EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE
So it’s a movie review, and you’re aware of the formal boundaries that separate movies and TV shows. And yes, this is televisual, less feature film and more a double-bill of Breaking Bad you’d never seen before. And guess how much I cared by the end. I never ceased to be gripped. Everything you loved about the show starts rolling its way back into your consciousness – the monsters, the writing, the performances of all involved. So sit yourself down for this worthy addition to a monolith of pop culture, and re-remember just how damn good Breaking Bad is.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY
Chivalry, formality, neutrality. This is English reticence taken to a conclusion that is as sad as it is logical. Principle is Mr Stevens, butler to a tradition destined to doom both personal and political, played by Anthony Hopkins with the utmost dexterity. My one doubt comes from the historical drama that fills out a surprising portion of the runtime, given the meat of the film is its relationship near-tragedy. Yet one will realise even the historical is used to constantly frame Mr Stevens’ entire being against friends, family, strangers in the pub, house guests, the world more or less. In the face of this onslaught his code attains great dignity — a complex man confronting problematic issues in a manner that exposes the braggadocio of modern discourse. But it also exposes great naivety. And no debate over ideals can obfuscate the raw agony of its immutable dilemma — irresolvable rather than unrequited love — one probed with excruciating precision, particularly in a knife-plunging penultimate scene. A character study in character studies.