A Review Of A Murder Mystery By Someone Who Writes Them
I published a short review of this film a couple of months back, but now that it’s on general release I’ve revisited it with some further thoughts.
There’s an in-built snobbery about the crime novel, a look of disdain from literary writers who disregard genre writing as having nothing to say. They should check out ‘Knives Out’, because here’s another example of the murder mystery acting as a Trojan horse for more intriguing ideas.
At first glance Rian Johnson’s film is a throwback to the Golden Age of the paperback whodunnit, complete with a baroque mansion, barking dogs, the murder of a curmudgeonly patriarch, dubious relatives awaiting the reading of a will and a freelancing detective who’s helping out the slower-witted police.
Such enterprises are usually pastiches or homages, but even parodies like Neil Simon’s ‘Murder By Death’ and ‘Clue’ arrived dead in the water because the genre had been knifed in the back by decades of mediocrity and cliché. By the time we reached the dramatically inert remake of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, two terrible films carved from a weak novel, it seemed there was nowhere left to go. If audiences had any suspicions they were not about lurking killers but about the entire genre now being moribund.
The problem, in hindsight, was that nobody took the whodunnit seriously anymore. The last perfect movie whodunnits that did not rely on a franchised character were ‘The Last of Sheila’ and ‘Sleuth’ (although you may care to try and think of others – there are a couple of French and Spanish ones, and the excellent ‘Loft’ from Holland; avoid the remake). ‘Knives Out’ is no pastiche, homage or satire. It features an original detective, Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, showing a surprising lightness of touch here and affecting such am outrageous Southern drawl that someone asks of him, ‘What is this, CSI:KFC?’
Johnson takes the whodunnit seriously because he knows his murder mysteries, but he raises the game by keeping it contemporary, so there are pop-cultural references and the suspects have very modern careers and motives. 85 year-old Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) seemingly cuts his own throat after his birthday party. His grasping children are selfish, over-privileged and convinced they’re in line for his inheritance until it starts to look like murder – but the chief suspect is also the only person who couldn’t have done it…
We’re presented with a paradoxical problem that’s like one of those puzzles in which one person always lies and the other only tells the truth (Johnson somewhat outrageously comes up with a twist to this conundrum) and stays one step ahead of his audience so that whenever we think we’ve cracked it there’s another twist in the tale.
But there’s something more at work here. Just because the drama plays out without irony doesn’t mean it can’t be stuffed to the gills with knowing tropes. The house is filled with games in a nod to both ‘Sleuth’ and ‘The Last of Sheila’. Each element of a Golden Age murder plot is present, blackmail, arson, murder, secret doors, poison, footprints, Holmes references, even ‘Murder, She Wrote’.
And something new; a political dimension that brings greater depth to the whole.
The rules to whodunnits started to crystalize as early as 1862, when ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’ by Charles Warren Adams began serialization. They were set in stone soon after and remained in place for the next century – but there were always mavericks who tested them.
EC Bentley, the inventor of a peculiar form of satiric poetry, the Clerihew, first ignored the crime guidelines in 1913 with ‘Trent’s Last Case’. Thirteen years later Agatha Christie committed the sin of omission in ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, which caused a public outcry for not playing fair with readers. The French essayist Pierre Bayard pushed the boundaries of the author/reader relationship further in ‘Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’, his brilliant dissection of Christie’s book.
It was the Catholic priest Ronald Knox who really set the cat among the pigeons with his ‘Decalogue’, a set of tongue-in-cheek fair-play rules for the crime reader of 1929. His seventh rule is, in fact, the one that Christie first traduced. Whodunnits lacked topicality and became increasingly abstract, blank pieces on a board to be shuffled about. ‘Knives Out’ performs the great service of pulling the whodunnit free from this algorithmic limbo and making it pertinent once more. The suspects – here including Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Toni Collete and Michael Shannon – exist in the real world and are all the better for it.
Agatha Christie has been on film since 1928. Her books were intended as serious murder mysteries, but during her long run of productivity the country houses fell (knocked down at a rate of one every two weeks), servants vanished, the class system became greatly reduced, the female workforce was mobilised and the nature of policing changed, with the result that the books became cheap camp, ripe for parody.
‘Knives Out’ returns the genre to being proper ensemble murder mysteries again, play-fair, funny, alarming and very nearly unguessable. But underneath this seemingly playful folly the script has sharp teeth.