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.
In Marriage Story, we don’t open with the murder itself but with a portrait of the thing that’s being killed: In voice-over we hear first Adam Driver’s Charlie and then Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole list the things that they love about each other, as touching scenes from their married life and their parenting of their eight-year-old son Henry unspool on-screen. Then the cut to the mediator’s office: The listing is an exercise the divorcing couple has been asked to conduct before they dive into the real work of splitting up, in the hopes of establishing a baseline of affection to make the divorcing amicable.
No such luck. Marriage Story is an effective, bleakly funny portrayal of how even couples who still care about each other can end up maddened into vicious legal and personal combat by the legal and moral logic of divorce. Nicole is an actress who wants to revive her Hollywood career after years as Charlie’s muse in East Coast theater; Charlie is a MacArthur-winning director who can’t imagine life outside New York. So their conflict over where to raise their son post-divorce, the Manhattan-or-L.A. dynamic, pushes them quickly into the hands of various lawyers, played marvelously by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta, who drain their finances and drive them into scorched-earth war.
To some extent, then, Baumbach’s movie fingers the lawyers as the murderers of Charlie and Nicole’s relationship, suggesting that amicable uncoupling and happy co-parenting might be possible absent the divorce regime that the legal sharks embody.
But when the lawyers aren’t onstage and we’re left with just the divorcing couple, it’s hard to escape the interpretation that they’re the real killers — jointly guilty of an unnecessary crime, the murder of a relationship and a family that didn’t need to die.
I don’t know whether this is Baumbach’s intent, but I do know, from his oeuvre, that he has no trouble portraying truly miserable marriages and damaged people who have no business being in a relationship of any kind. And that isn’t the impression left by what we see of the Charlie–Nicole partnership, even as it fails. Notwithstanding a vicious, much-memed fight between them in the final act, the primary impression left by their discontents, their career resentments and anxieties, and their East Coast/West Coast dilemmas is that they could have been worked through, managed, compromised around, and ultimately maybe overcome.
At the very least, these discontents don’t seem strong enough to justify destroying so quickly the family they’ve made together. Marriages die slowly of natural causes, they die despite heroic efforts, but the story in Marriage Story depicts a marriage killed before its time — murdered as thoroughly as Harlan Thrombey, but with no need for a drawling gentleman sleuth to figure out whodunit.
This article appears as “A Pair of Murders” in the December 31, 2019, print edition of National Review.