HBO has given us a continuation of the famous 1986-87 comic series that changed the industry.
It’s been 34 years since a giant mutant squid appeared in the middle of New York City, killed off several million people, and convinced the Earth that aliens were invading, preventing nuclear war. Since then, superheroes have been outlawed and Robert Redford has been president. An incident involving an attempt by the racist “Seventh Kavalry” to kill all of the law enforcement officers in Tulsa, Oklahoma has led to the passage of laws which allow Law Enforcement Officers to operate as costumed figures to protect their secret identities.
Angela Abar (Regina King), a survivor of the “White Night,” operates as a Tulsa detective under the name “Sister Night” along with her fellow survivor Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) and Det. Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson). After a police shooting by the Kavalry, Abar gets dragged into a series of events intertwining her fate with the characters who are still standing from the events of the original Watchmen: Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt, Laurie “Silk Spectre” Blake, and Jon “Doctor Manhattan” Osterman.
Damon Lindelof, the creator of the show, has spent a decade being roundly (and justifiably) chastised for the fact that his previous creation, Lost, appeared to have no f*cking clue where the story was going. As if to compensate, this show clearly was thoroughly plotted before the first scene was shot. It’s almost as coherent in terms of themes and storytelling as its namesake comic, which is saying something. Without saying what it is, they have their own version of the clock motif from the comic and it pays off from the first episode to the last.
Every performance is great, which makes it hard for me to really say who the standout is. I’m going to say it’s Regina King, mostly because she gets the most screen-time and is the focus of the story, but the fact that such an amazing actor isn’t head-and-shoulders above the supporting cast tells you how elevated the supporting cast is. Many of them have to play characters who operate almost entirely through masks that don’t allow for expression which is impressive.
In terms of storytelling, the show manages to both select and adapt some of the more memorable elements of the comic, including a completely linearly non-linear episode (it makes sense in context), which contains one of the best temporal mind-screws I’ve seen in quite a while. The show does a great job managing it’s fairly large cast and they accomplish a lot of worldbuilding through showing, not telling (which is something that I will literally always applaud). While the original Watchmen essentially satirized the existence of superheroes by pointing out that only damaged people would ever think superheroics are a good option, this show continues that by showing that people inspired by superheroes are also likely to view violence and secrecy more than normal people. The themes about the nature of racism are handled well, attacking it from all angles.
The main thing that I appreciate about this is that it isn’t just Watchmen 2. The show isn’t focused just on the characters and what happened to them after the series, it’s about what would be changed in a world like the one that Watchmen is set in. It’s similar to what I appreciate about The Mandalorian: It’s showing me more about a world that I want to see more of, but it isn’t just trying to force a continuation of the previous story. Yes, it involves some of the same characters, but it doesn’t focus on them.
Rian Johnson manages to create an extremely elaborate, well-crafted, well-paced mystery with a hell of a message.
The great mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead, apparently having slit his own throat. Despite the fact that it appears clearly self-inflicted, the great detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate the Thrombey household. This includes Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s needy youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their Alt-Right son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s flighty widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), and her perpetual student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). Not on the suspect list is Harlan’s kind and honest nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), one of his closest friends and Benoit Blanc’s new assistants. However, not everything is as it seems, and almost everyone has a motive to have caused Harlan’s untimely demise. It turns out that many members are much more desperate than they appear at first, and when people get desperate, the knives come out.
I’m a big fan of detective fiction, as evidenced by the tattoo of Sherlock Holmes on my chest. While I was concerned at first that this movie would be a little more of a mystery farce in the vein of Clue (which I also love), I can assure you that while this movie has many funny parts, the film is an extremely well-crafted whodunnit. There are traditionally two kinds of whodunnits: One is the kind where the audience is just as much in the dark as the characters, and one where the audience is told some version of events that the characters aren’t and the deduction is in finding out the missing how. This movie is more akin to the latter, but it’s done in a style that I’ve only seen done well a few times in fiction and never this well in a movie. I don’t want to reveal too much about the structure, but let me say that it simultaneously tells the audience everything they need to know to figure out the mystery from about 25 minutes in, but also paces all the reveals and red herrings so perfectly that you’ll never be 100% sure. Even if you do guess the ending relatively early on, trust me, it’s still just a really well crafted narrative.
Honestly, almost everything in this movie is high-level. The sets, particularly the mansion in which most of the film takes place, are all immaculate. The mansion contains tons of references to Harlan’s fictional bibliography, some of which are identified and others are references to titles shown to the audience. It is also filled with the kind of relics and odd antiques that a mystery mansion is supposed to have. I think one of my favorite elements is that every room has a bar in it, either open or, more often, hidden. It IS a writer’s house, after all; sobriety is for the reader.
The characters are all great. Every performance is on point and the personalities are intentionally so diverse that you could guess who said any given line just by the content. Their outfits are so similarly diverse that it really does feel like a Clue board, where you can tell the characters by just a glance. They each have their strange idiosyncrasies which play into the mystery. Also, Chris Evans rocks a sweater.
The structure of the film starts with the Rashomon-style interrogation in which it becomes clear that everyone remembers the night of Harlan’s death a little differently and, while the audience sees more than the characters say, we also get some inconsistencies in the depictions. It works to quickly establish the duplicity of the suspects and also to give the audience some clues to play with. From there, it plays out similar to most detective stories.
Overall, this is just a great film and I recommend it to everyone.
ENDING EXPLAINED (SPOILERS)
So, just a reminder: Marta thought she’d overdosed Harlan with morphine. Fearing for her mom’s safety as an illegal immigrant, Harlan killed himself and set up a way to avoid suspicion on Marta. Turns out that she hadn’t overdosed Harlan because Ransom had switched the vials, planning on framing her for killing Harlan. He ends up going to jail and Marta gets all of Harlan’s money.
Watching the last third of the movie was exactly what I was looking for: A great detective breaking everything down dramatically. It’s clear that everything in the movie was setting up for this ultimate and amazing explanation and it pays off. Even though from the beginning we are led to think that Marta is the innocent woman who is being tormented by a completely understandable mistake and circumstances. Sure, the missing Naloxone from the kit stands out as the first hint that something more may be at play, but it’s also completely possible that it was really just a tragic accident. Since we know that Marta is a good person, watching her torment herself over the truth is just as terrible as watching the Thrombey family try to torment her to give them their money back. That doubles the satisfaction when it’s revealed that not only was it not her fault, but that she was in fact an unwitting victim.
This plays into a big theme in the movie that I really like: The power of kindness. Benoit Blanc points it out himself when he says that Marta ends up winning not by playing Harlan’s game or by playing the Thrombey’s game, but by playing her game and being a kind and honest person. She is saved because she works so hard to save Fran (Edi Patterson) even though it means her own end, allowing her to make the final gambit against Ransom and getting him to confess. The movie makes it clear that the thing that sets her apart is that she is caring, she is genuine, and she is selfless. When Meg, a seemingly honest person, betrays Marta, Marta not only says she’s going to help Meg, but forgives her instantly, understanding her position. The movie even drives home that basically no one in the family can comprehend Harlan’s lesson to them and it’s not just that Marla is kinder than they are, it’s that she is actually the American dream like Harlan was.
Harlan makes a large point out of being self-made, as do his children. The problem is that none of the children are actually self-made. Linda, Harlan’s favorite, does at least run her own company and thus is not really being cut off, but she only has the company because Harlan loaned her Eight Million Dollars that she used to found it. Joni doesn’t really work and has just been stealing from Harlan using Meg as a cover. Even after Harlan gives her enough money to pay for the rest of Meg’s college, she lies and tells Meg that she can’t pay for it so that Meg will betray Marta. Walt basically only has anything because his father allows him to publish his books and even that’s not enough for him. At the end of the movie, Marta, who had nothing, became an expert nurse and Go player, and is the daughter of an illegal immigrant, has everything. She’s literally above them all on the balcony.
I do also want to comment, possibly to my own detriment, on the fact that Rian Johnson gave all of the Thrombeys wildly different political views and personalities. When they’re comfortable, they fight over politics and philosophies, ranging from Richard’s casual racism to Joni’s Liberalism to Jacob’s very direct racism, we’re still shown that they’re all fairly equally dismissive of Marta, just using her as an example to back their side when convenient (and none of them bother to know which country her family is from). However, once the money is threatened, they’re all united on one point: Get the money back. They all come up with different justifications for why they deserve the money, but despite the fact that they’ve all been earning much more than 99% of the world for the last few decades, all of them believe they’re entitled to more. It’s a not-so-subtle commentary, indicating that the wealthy will always want more. Marta, like Harlan, is more likely to be generous because they were poor once and value having things more. Ultimately, while the movie shows the Thrombeys fighting over politics as a “liberal versus conservative” battle, the final and more honest struggle is between the exploiters and the exploited. It’s a pretty solid theme to sneak into a mystery film.
Nick Frost and Rupert Grint star in this serial sitcom based around constantly-accelerating lies and cover-ups.
Daniel Glass (Rupert Grint) is kind of a shithead. He’s lazy, a habitual liar, and has finally hit the breaking point with both his job and his girlfriend, Becca (Pippa Bennett-Warner), with both of them ready to dump him on the same day. He fakes an injury in an attempt to buy time and sympathy, but his doctor, the absent-minded Dr. Iain Glennis (Nick Frost), informs him that he has esophageal cancer. Suddenly, everyone treats him better, his girlfriend takes him back, and his boss, Kenny West (Don Johnson), gives him a job as a spokesperson for the company.
However, Dr. Glennis arrives to tell him that there was an error due to his own incompetence and that Daniel does NOT have cancer. Daniel, not willing to go back to the life he had, blackmails Glennis into pretending to treat his non-existent cancer. Naturally, the pair keep having to cover things up and each lie escalates to the point of insanity as they try to maintain this con.
This show is in the vein of Fawlty Towers or The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, where the humor is derived largely from a series of increasing schemes and counter-schemes. Every lie told on this show, by necessity, has to be an escalation of the previous lie. Beyond that, though, one of the recurring themes in the show is that everyone around Daniel is often being just as dishonest as he is, just about something else. There is only one character in the show that tends to be honest with people (so far) and that’s Linda (Marama Corlett), one of Daniel’s co-workers who is often depicted as being almost creepily open with people.
The core lie in the series, that Daniel has cancer, is interesting in that it forces most of the other people to be dishonest out of a desire not to be seen as crapping on someone that has a serious illness. Having had cancer, I found this to be a refreshingly honest statement about how people deal with cancer patients. Most people who were in your life will treat you better because you’re already dealing with enough (which is true) and they love you (which they do), but a few people will treat you nicer solely because they just don’t want to be perceived as being mean to the sick guy. It’s usually very obvious, but we generally tend to approve of it because they’re being nicer even if it’s insincere. This show, however, turns this up to eleven by having the people go out of their way to try and hide all of the things that they thought or felt about Daniel, many of which were completely justified, as Daniel was a lying crapbag even before he decided not to tell people that he doesn’t have cancer.
Another source of humor is the interactions between Dr. Glennis and Daniel, because, even though Glennis is presumed to be learned based on his position, Nick Frost perfectly portrays him as an absent-minded, unfocused bumbler. He manages to commit fundamentally stupid mistakes on almost any given task. He forgets his phone with incriminating texts, he loses other patients, and he routinely leaves incriminating evidence at scenes of cover-ups. At any given point, he’s basically a fountain of Murphy’s Law. Despite this, Glennis actually starts to become relatively successful during the course of the series, mostly because of his association with Daniel’s “miraculous” appearance during his supposed chemotherapy treatment.
The supporting characters are all fantastic, from Daniel’s best friend Ash (Tolu Ogunmefun), to his online friend Will_5000 (Dustin Demri-Burns), to Ash’s wife, Vanessa (Camilla Beeput), to his boss’s daughter Katerina (Lindsay Lohan). They’re all hiding their own secrets, some of which are arguably much worse than Daniel’s. Much like Daniel, they constantly have to go increasingly unbelievable lengths to cover up their sins. Hilarity ensues.
Overall, this is a pretty solid show if you like black comedies, Nick Frost, or Rupert Grint. Give it a shot sometime.