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'Knives Out' Resurrects the Ensemble Whodunnit

December 3, 2019
2 min read time

Thanksgiving weekend at the box office reaffirmed some longstanding notions about Hollywood that don't bode particularly well for the future of narrative cinema. Yet, in other areas, the takeaway very much gave hope to those excited about expanding the possibilities of big screen storytelling.

After breaking records last week in its opening frame, Disney's Frozen II once again dominated,  taking in $85.2 million over the weekend. The haul contributed to a five day take of $126 million, which is a new Thanksgiving record for any movie, let alone one in its second week in theaters.

The wide-spread embrace of Frozen II is a good lesson in narrative management from Disney, still the master of the art of keeping a franchise audience hungry. But while there are pertinent storytelling lessons there, it's also a little concerning that so much of the modern narrative space is taken up by one company.

Yes, Disney is showing more interest in narrative diversity now than they ever have. But, by controlling so many of the stories that matter, they are in a powerful position to dominate popular narrative like no one else, and that's a position that can be perilous even with the best intentions.

But while Disney reaffirms its grasp on the macro audience in the number one spot, the film that took number one suggests a whole new world of possibilities.

Rian Johnson's Knives Out performed well above expectations to earn $27 million over the weekend, with a $41 million total take over the five day Thanksgiving period.

The film is a murder mystery comedy thriller starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas and Christopher Plummer, among others. In an era when big box office is driven primarily by intellectual property, the film's success is a huge win for storytelling that doesn't rely upon brand names.

It's also a great example of how a dormant film genre—in this case, the ensemble whodunnit, which was massive in the 1970s and early 1980s before shifting more or less entirely to television—can be resurrected and made relevant.

While it’s a film that very much exists more to please than to preach, much of the acclaim surrounding Knives Out centers around the film's sly observations about white privilege and immigration. It's a great reminder of how much a movie's narrative can benefit when the filmmakers are willing to really look at the world around them.

The film's success is also a welcome reminder that a film narrative doesn't need be augmented with explosions and special effects to garner a wide audience

In other interesting film release news, after several weeks in a token theatrical release, Netflix's big swing for the year hit the streaming service over the weekend. Martin Scorsese's The Irishman arrives at a time when there is intense online debate about his comments regarding superhero movies not really being cinema.

They say the proof is in the pudding, and The Irishman is very much the pudding. It's as strong an assertion of Scorsese's talents as a master storyteller as any film he has made. Not a lot of people can make a three-and-a-half-hour runtime fly by.

If nothing else, the narrative confidence displayed in The Irishman should give Scorsese the right to say anything he wants about movies, as his latest film proves definitively that he is one of the all-time masters of the form.

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