The butler did it, you say? In Rian Johnson’s new movie, this mothballed murder mystery cliche gets a welcome airing out.
Knives Out pays clever homage to British crime writer Agatha Christie while also rewriting her treatment of social class in her novels, stories and plays. The movie is set in America but the set-up is classic Christie. The wealthy patriarch of a large and unwieldy clan has died the day after a tense and argument-laden birthday party. The manner of death suggests suicide – but is it? The entire family is suspect. A will is to be read. A flamboyant detective with a French-sounding name arrives on the scene.
A non-family member is a part of the mix, and the importance given to her character reflects the movie’s attempt at weaving social commentary into a classic whodunit yarn. Marta (Ana de Armas) is the Spanish-speaking nurse of bestselling author Harlan (Christopher Plummer). Marta is unable to lie and vomits when asked to do so. This characteristic reaps rich dividends after Harlan is found dead in his study, and is especially lucrative if you ignore the niggling question about why a nurse wouldn’t seek treatment for her own peculiar condition.
Harlan’s warring wards makes for easy suspects. His daughters Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Joni (Toni Collette) and son Walt (Michael Shannon) are polished dispensers of platitudes and shedders of crocodile tears. Harlan’s grandson Hugh (Chris Evans) is a dissolute playboy, while son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) has a skeleton in his closet that pops out in most spectacular fashion.
The stellar cast is toplined by a superb Daniel Craig as private investigator Benoit Blanc. The name is a hat-tip to Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. Benoit has Poirot’s sang-froid and self-regard but also a hilariously earthy American accent – an early indication of the way in which the movie is both respectful of Christie as well as irreverent.
Several Christie devices litter Benoit’s investigation – the significance of seemingly stray remarks; the unreliability of witness testimonies and flashbacks; the small clues that add up to important discoveries; the detective who is part-conjurer and part-psychologist. Poison, Christie’s preferred mode of killing, gets a contemporary update. Harley’s mansion resembles a wealthy prop manager’s storage unit, and perhaps the most striking item on the sets is a chair made out of glistening knives that turns out to have an important cameo in this game of thrones.
The sharp writing never feels dated even though the murder mystery is resolutely old-school. The tone is light and easy, and the critique of class prejudice and snobbery cuts sharply but not deep. Household help made significant contributions to Christie’s plots, and this contemporary rewrite provides new, imaginative ways with which to regard the small army of butlers, cooks and caretakers who watched their affluent employers kill or be killed. In Knives Out, the best joke is the constant misidentification of Marta’s country of origin. Is she Paraguayan? Brazilian? That’s like asking whether Hercule Poirot was French.