Last night I saw Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s wonderfully ripe murder mystery, that boasts a fine array of performances ranging from the judiciously over-the-top (Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Colette) to the genuinely affecting (Ana de Armas, brilliant), as well as those that waver between the two. Here I’m thinking of Daniel Craig, whose atrocious southern accent disguises masterful detectorial insight, and Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, the bestselling crime writer whose apparent suicide on the night of his 85th birthday set the film in motion.
The cast is great, and the cinematography and direction workmanlike, but what struck me most of all was Johnson’s brilliantly contrived screenplay, which is a masterclass not just in mystery plotting – intricate enough to keep you guessing, and simple enough to make sense as flashback after flashback sends you zipping backwards and forwards in time – but in the logical construction of the central character’s emotional arc. What follows is an analysis of one aspect of this, and contains spoilers. It is intended only for people who have seen the film.
The key character point of Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s immigrant nurse, is that she is physiologically unable to tell a lie: if she lies, she throws up. There are four (in fact five) moments in the film when this fact is utilised. Two of them are essential to the plot, but all of them are central to our understanding of the nature of her character.
Character is plot, we are taught in creative writing books and classes, and this is a perfect instance of that. (In passing: I teach on an MA in novel-writing, and it’s a constant annoyance that so many examples that come up in discussion, from me as well as from the students, are from films, rather than novels. Why is this? I hope it’s simply because i) films are more memorable, as combining visual and verbal elements and ii) they are simpler, goddamit! All the same: I’m writing this post because I think the film can teach us a useful lesson in plotting.)
The first time we learn that Marta cannot lie without vomiting is the first time she is interviewed by Daniel Craig’s private investigator, Benoit Blanc. He probes her on her actions on the night of the party, and she dissembles, trying to hide something (we don’t know what at this point), and is then sick in a flower pot. Note that we don’t see the vomit.
There’s another minor repetition of this moment later in the film when Marta and her temporary partner-in-crime Ransom Thrombey (Harlan’s grandson, played by Chris Evans) are caught after a car chase with Craig’s Blanc and the other cops. Blanc, seemingly still believing her to be innocent, asks if Ransom forced her to drive. She says yes, though that’s not true, and surreptitiously spits up in a takeaway coffee cup. Again, we don’t see the vomit, and note that it’s a small bit of puke, for a small lie.
[The spoilers proper kick in here. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film. It’s worth it, I promise!] Continue reading
Clearly I’m running late on my March reading. The pile of books looks impressive though, doesn’t it? March must have been a good month, for reading. (Okay, the Knausgaard, A Man in Love, stretched over to early April – and here’s my instant response posting on it, that I wrote when I should have been writing this.)
Some of the books were read to external deadlines – the Patrick Ness, Ruth Ozeki and James Meek all had to be written about – and so tended to be fitted around life. They got read in bed, at the desk, in a random chair, always with half an eye on the page count and half an eye on the calendar. Never the best circumstances for reading, and of course that ends up being reflected in what you write about the books. A book review is a particularly clumsy form, a rushed attempt at a pre-emptive backwards glance, a quasi-historical contextualisation before that context has had time to adhere.
Others, though, got read in their own time, those pockets of space that occasionally, if you’re lucky spring up for a book, or around a book, or in response to a book, and coax it into being read, and read properly.
(This is part of the greater argument about the novel as bourgeois object, that it flourished in response to middle class people having time to read novels… which argument goes on to say that the novel is doomed not because of its internal flaws, but because of the culture in which it lives. It’s an argument I think I probably agree with.
It’s not just that television takes up so much of that precious bourgeois time (‘quality time’ – can there be a more bourgeois phrase?) in most people’s lives – think of the rise of the box set as middle class cultural artefact, and of the digital hard drive attached to the TV… people have long talked of having more books in their house than they will ever have time to read. Now, for the first time, people have more television selected and stored in their house than they will ever have time to watch. Continue reading