"Knives Out," Rian Johnson's candy-colored homage to Agatha Christie, boasts one of the most electric ensembles in recent years. The most commanding presence in the movie, however, might be that of Christopher Plummer, the mightily versatile actor who died Friday at 91.
Plummer appears in "Knives Out" for only a few scenes as the imperious mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey. But his spirit — old-world charm mixed with paternal warmth, quiet melancholy and vague menace — hangs over nearly every sequence of the whodunit, haunting its main characters.
It is probably fair to say that few film actors remain vital and authoritative even after working steadily for nearly seven decades. But that was not the case with Plummer, a prolific and sometimes mischievous performer who enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in his final decade.
When, at the spry age of 82, Plummer finally won an Academy Award for "Beginners," the recognition might have seemed like a valedictory career capstone. But instead, Plummer went on to deliver some of the most interesting performances of his illustrious career.
In the 2010s, Plummer specialized in playing graying but magnetic patriarchs of surprising depth and mystery.
He is deeply moving in Mike Mills' "Beginners" (2011) as Hal Fields, a museum director who, late in life, comes out as a gay man and finds love before dying of cancer. The character, based in part on the experience of the director's father, was a showcase for Plummer's tender and vulnerable side.
"Beginners," at least on paper, might sound like the sort of Hollywood tearjerker sometimes dismissed as "Oscar bait." But the movie is restrained and subtle, concentrating on quiet moments between characters instead of emotional bombast. Plummer deserves much of the credit for the movie's grace.
Plummer was arguably best known for playing the dashing widower Captain von Trapp in "The Sound of Music." He expressed disdain for the part, telling People magazine in 1982 that the box-office smash "follows me around like an albatross.”
It is interesting to consider the way Captain von Trapp shadows Plummer's work in the 2010s, however. In the thrillers "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2011) and "All the Money in the World" (2017), Plummer seemed to be subverting the solid paterfamilias archetype he played so memorably in the classic musical.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," David Fincher's baroque adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel, finds Plummer as Henrik Vanger, a wealthy Swedish industrialist who asks journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of his grandniece.
The elder Vanger is not the villain of the movie, but his sprawling family — a clan that includes vicious criminals, deviants and Nazis — feels like the twisted inverse of the von Trapp brood, who famously escaped the clutches of the Third Reich.
Ridley Scott's "All the Money in the World" is less of a gothic nightmare than "Dragon Tattoo," but Plummer again plays the head of a family that might be charitably described as dysfunctional despite having the stuff of the title.
In the role of billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, Plummer (who replaced Kevin Spacey at the last minute) is intimidating. He forcefully embodies a ruthless man whose soul has been poisoned by enormous wealth, dominating the movie without resorting to high-strung theatrics.
"Knives Out" (2019), a crowd-pleaser that proved to be Plummer's penultimate film role, gives the actor a chance to mix and match his late-2010s characters.
Harlan Thrombey is yet another chieftain of a vain and maladjusted family, but Plummer imbues the character with both the gentle humanity he brought to "Beginners" and the imperiousness of his depiction of Getty. "It’s a shame that he isn’t around longer," The New York Times wrote of Plummer in its review.
It's a sentiment that might be broadly applied to Plummer himself, an actor of rare talent and heft who — despite having entered his early 90s — still felt like he was in the middle of a fascinating new chapter.