'Knives Out' finally finds a way to update the manor house murder mystery. It's about time.

"Knives Out" is nearly a full century removed from Poirot’s 1921 debut. But the conditions of modern-day America turn out to mirror those of Agatha Christie’s time.
"Knives Out"
The killer cast of "Knives Out."Claire Folger / Lionsgate
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By Ani Bundel

Mysteries are a comfort genre. These soothing stories invariably feature an intelligent detective taking a chaotic situation (usually murder most foul) and restoring order by puzzling out the whodunit. But over the past decade, murder mysteries have fallen mostly out of favor, even while the sibling genres of science fiction and fantasy have been taking the box office by storm. Now, director Rian Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) is here to right that wrong. Johnson's Agatha Christie-esque mystery “Knives Out” not only brings back this breed of manor house murder mystery — last a cult hit with the 1980s-era “Clue” — but proves that the current climate may be ripe for a full-scale modern revival.

Johnson's Agatha Christie-esque mystery “Knives Out” not only brings back this breed of manor house murder mystery, but proves that the current climate may be ripe for a full-scale modern revival.

Christie’s type of mystery was endemic to a particular time and culture. During the post-Great War years, her stories relied upon the class system and contemporary social mores. Servants listening at keyholes, butlers who invisibly clean murder weapons in plain sight and upper-middle-class suspects who all have motives based on maintaining their lifestyles fill her stories.

Her most famous detectives, Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple, were characters dependent on the assumptions and snobberies of the time, able to observe what others couldn’t because of their outsider status. And her endings have become the stuff of parody, as the detective gathers all the suspects into a drawing room and lays out the case point by point, with the murderer cheerfully sitting among them until the final reveal.

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Because of this formula, and the traditions it relied on, many recent adaptations have found it easiest to stay in the past. Even in cases where the adaptation ages things (such as “The ABC Murders,” which aired on the BBC in 2018), the story is still treated as a period piece.

This is why “Knives Out” is such a revelation. Set in 2019 in Massachusetts, this story, with its smartphones and SUVs, is nearly a full century removed from Poirot’s debut in 1921’s “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” But the conditions of modern-day America turn out to mirror those of Christie’s time, even though Christie would assuredly be unable to decipher a line like: “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you!” America, like Great Britain one hundred years ago, is an empire in its waning years, with casual millionaires and servants hired under the guise of being “home healthcare aides.” Now all we need is an eccentric outsider detective able to see through the assumptions of the privileged. Enter detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

The victim here is one Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), millionaire mystery writer extraordinaire, who is discovered with his throat slashed in his own study. Like any good victim, Thrombey's New England manor house comes complete with creepy statuary, front and back gates with outdated security systems and ladder trellises capable of handling the weight of a human or two. Plus, there is a fake window hidden behind a false wall, dogs that bark in the night and a group of adult children, all of whom see themselves as having earned the life of luxury they were born into — and perhaps willing to kill to maintain it.

And there is a star-studded cast of suspects. Jaime Lee Curtis is oldest daughter Linda, a “self-made businesswoman” who’s fortune was started by a million-dollar loan from daddy. She also has a philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a ne’er-do-well son, Ransom (Chris Evans). Her brother Walt (Michael Shannon) runs their father’s publishing company, while surrounding himself with racist wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and burgeoning neo-Nazi son Jacob (Jaeden Martell). They’re joined by Joni (Toni Collette), the wife of their late brother, still sponging off her father-in-law’s fortune to maintain both her lifestyle and her daughter Meg’s (Katherine Langford) private school education.

And then there’s Marta (Ana de Armas), the nurse who has been looking after Harlan all these years. She seems genuinely grief stricken at her employer’s passing, though she was not invited to the funeral. (Each family member makes sure to tell her they wanted her there, but they were outvoted.) Under questioning by police inspector Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) and the wily Blanc, all insist Marta is “like family” and all insist they’ll take care of her.

Blanc's deep southern “Foghorn Leghorn” accent means these hoity-toity New England patricians don’t take him seriously. At least, not until it’s too late (for the killer).

But of course, it’s all nonsense. (The rich don’t become rich by giving their money away.) As Blanc slowly rebuilds the night in question, the family all reveal themselves to be closer politically to the alt-right Jacob then they'd like it publicly known. Marta is at various points described as the Colombian, Venezuelan, Uruguayan, or Brazilian by family members. (She was born in America.) The casual racism renders her and fellow housekeeper Fran invisible, which is why Blanc sees her as the best assistant for his case.

Blanc himself may seem eccentric, a man full of weird questions who sometimes looks as if he’s not paying attention. But his deep southern “Foghorn Leghorn” accent (as one character describes it) means these hoity-toity New England patricians don’t take him seriously. At least, not until it’s too late (for the killer).

As to who actually “dun” it, that’s far too fun to spoil in any review. Suffice it to say the twists keep coming, from switched medications to stage prop weapons, right up until the finale. Even after the family has been assembled, and the confession to the crime is imminent, there are reminders that when it comes to wealth, money and lifestyle, the softest hands can find reasons to harden up.

Thankfully, out of this chaos, Blanc is there to pin the crime on the guilty party and create order in the world once more. Like Christie’s Poirot, one can only hope Johnson’s detective has a long casebook ahead of him.