Two of the more entertaining films of this holiday season, scene for scene and line for line, are murder mysteries, though only one technically involves a corpse. In both, the most important victim isn’t an individual but a family, its generational bonds dissolved and its resources devoured, with outsiders as the major beneficiaries.
The two movies are Knives Out!, a cozy, giddy country-house murder mystery from Rian Johnson, in full flight from his unhappy experience making The Last Jedi, and Marriage Story, a hyper-articulate divorce drama from Noah Baumbach, our longtime chronicler of bicoastal creative-class pathologies. You will not find them compared in many reviews, but I saw them back to back and it’s interesting to read them through each other, despite their differences of genre, plot, and style.
Knives Out! opens with its murder, exposing the body of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a mega-selling mystery writer enjoying his sunset years in a red-brick northeastern manse, with a kindly Latina nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas) to tend him, and all his various descendants competing for his favors.
These scions are played by familiar faces, among them Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans, and they all quickly become suspects when someone hires the world’s last “gentleman sleuth” to assist the police in their inquiry into the death. The sleuth, Benoit Blanc, is played by Daniel Craig in his second notable foray into southern accents; he went hillbilly for Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, and here he’s attempting, with intermittent success, a pseudo-aristocratic drawl.
As Blanc’s investigation advances, the political valence of the movie becomes obvious. The only decent person here is Marta, the daughter of an illegal immigrant from a Latin American country that none of the Thrombeys can consistently identify, while the squabbling heirs manifest various American political types — liberal-arts snowflake, alt-right teen, Trumpy dad, New Age lefty — while making them all seem equally odious and undeserving of their own country . . . sorry, their own estate. The murder of their sympathetic, self-made, and brilliant paterfamilias merely literalizes what an hour with his heirs would already have conveyed: The younger generations have betrayed their father’s legacy, the foreign help is more worthy than the lot of them, and all that the native sons and daughters deserve to inherit is the wind.
Or at least that’s the simplest reading. A subtler one might ask why exactly the younger generations turned out the way they did, whether Plummer’s grand old man might bear some responsibility for all the moral rot in the shadow of his wealth, and whether the question of who killed the Thrombey family, and when, might have an answer that differs starkly from the resolution of Benoit’s case.