By Neil Giordano
At a time when Kenneth Branagh busies himself clogging up multiplexes with bombastic Agatha Christie all-star remakes, director/writer Rian Johnson revels in subversion of the genre.
Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson. Screening, starting tomorrow, at Regal Fenway, AMC Boston Common 19, and other movie houses throughout New England.
Poor Agatha Christie. Knives Out, the new all-star murder mystery, unapologetically purloins her long-successful formula and turns it inside out. Then it fricassees it, sticks it in a microwave, and adds a side of soggy fries. Knives Out Americanizes the parlor-room murder mystery so heartily that it would be a shame if you just walked out relishing Daniel Craig’s hammy Louisiana accent. The film also rewards in a number of other ways: there’s a stellar cast, a twisted plot full of surprises, and, as a rancid cherry on top, some well-tailored satire aimed at the Trump era.
The mystery revolves around the death of one Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful mystery novelist who is discovered with his throat slashed the morning after his 85th birthday party at his Massachusetts mansion (the movie was filmed in the Boston area). In attendance at the party are his children: daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband, Richard (Don Johnson); son Walt (Michael Shannon) along with his young son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell); and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), with her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford). Linda and Richard’s son, Ransom (Chris Evans), shows up late the next day; for reasons unknown he had stormed out of the party in a huff. Despite the clan’s attempts at keeping up appearances, all is not well among the Thrombeys; internecine tensions and rivalries are flaring up. The police begin their investigation with the puzzling aid of a freelancer: “Enter Benoit Blanc,” utters Daniel Craig, whose accent wobbles somewhere between Foghorn Leghorn and chef Justin Wilson. Blanc’s role in matters adds yet another layer to the mystery.
On the periphery of the family, but central to our film’s machinations, stands Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s competent and amiable nurse. Tellingly, all of the Thrombeys dote on Marta publicly and treat her like “family” — yet none will admit to leaving her off the invite list for the funeral service. She stands as the moral center of the film, surrounded by variously dirty shades of repugnance. (Evans steals the movie with his hostile quips and unabashed assholery). Everyone is a suspect, of course, but it turns out that Harlan bequeathed all of his money and property to Marta. And that subjects her to the family’s scorn and suspicion. The plot unwinds slowly but surely; the detective proceedings are well-crafted by writer-director Rian Johnson, with plenty of dead ends and red herrings. Is Marta, despite her loving and goodnatured appearance, not all that she seems? She cannot lie without becoming physically sick; the police seem most drawn to her recitation of the facts. Can we trust her, too?
Enigmas aside, Johnson has infused the script with an acidic commentary on life in our contemporary American economy, where the wealthy Thrombeys revel in patting themselves on the back for all their hard work. Of course, that contradicts the (unspoken) fact that none of them have ever earned their living. Marta embodies real grit and work ethic. She is, of course, an immigrant, a status that the Thrombeys sanctimoniously celebrate. But the dark underside of their praise is made clear in a running joke: none can quite place where she came from in Latin America. For them, Marta’s story is as irrelevant as she is as a human being. Marta’s mother is undocumented, which adds urgency to the daughter’s woes as she becomes caught up in the drama of the inheritance and the investigation.
Elsewhere, the Christie formula is transformed into an innately American farce. The clan’s stately mansion is not a relic built from old money — it was purchased from a wealthy Pakistani businessman in the 1980s. A car chase in the middle of the movie goes (literally) nowhere. Our president’s name makes nary an appearance, yet his presence looms over the goings-on in the casual though heated political discussions of the Thrombeys. Ransom’s demeanor calls to mind Donald Trump Jr.’s sense of entitlement and laughably inflated self-worth (and their hairstyles match, to wit). And it’s no accident that the police conduct their interviews in the mansion’s library: Harlan’s success as an author is the source of the inheritance (and a nod to Christie). But this worthy legacy is the only sign of meritocracy in the family — it dies with Harlan. The Thrombey progeny, each a curdled example of ill-will and opportunism, eagerly await the prospect of wealth falling into their laps, deserved or not. Even the socially conscious progressive Meg (snarked at as a “social justice warrior” by her cousin) joins in on the money-grabbing — proving that greed is an egalitarian pursuit.
Johnson deserves much of the credit for keeping the pace and humor of the film just right. Knives Out, in fact, takes him back to his roots. His indie feature debut Brick (2005) carved a similarly deconstructive approach to the mystery movie, transplanting a traditional detective story onto a high school campus. At a time when Kenneth Branagh busies himself clogging up multiplexes with bombastic Agatha Christie all-star remakes, Johnson revels in subversion. This is his first feature since his successful — but divisive — The Last Jedi. He clearly enjoys being away from the constricting dictates of a Hollywood franchise. Rather than working within a genre, he has a talent for reimagining the old, in this case drawing on the merriment of satiric spoof to create something fresh and alive and intelligent.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.