Is there anything more delightful than a modern take on an old, familiar, perhaps even tired genre? Not really. Which is why, at the end of 2019, whodunit fans everywhere were given an early holiday present with a clever and witty update of the classic British house mystery that somehow manages to preserve the most treasured aspects of the genre while injecting it with fresh energy, perspective and purpose. The movie is a spiritual successor to the detective dramas of decades gone by, presented anew for audiences who never quite understood the mysteries their parents grew up with. And that movie is not only one of the very best mysteries produced in recent years, but one of the best movies of recent years, period: Knives Out.
The scene: The mansion of Harlan Thombey, one of the most successful mystery writers of his age. The occasion: Thrombey’s 85th birthday. The crisis: Thrombey has been discovered dead the morning after, having slashed his own throat. One by one, Thrombey’s immediate family is questioned a final time by the police, just to ensure everyone was where they said they were on the night of Harlan’s death. But there is an unexpected player: the gentleman detective Benoit Blanc, hired by an unknown client to discover if Harlan’s suicide is more than it appears to be. As Blanc discover discrepancies high and low in everyone’s story, he pieces together that Harlan was preparing to write his whole family out of his will—and the sizable fortune it safeguarded. And more than that, Blanc discovers an unexpected ally in Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse and confidant, a young woman whose own role in Harlan’s final hours are both more and less suspicious than that at first appear. Amid a storming sea of clues, misdirection, family dysfunction, greed, jealousy, racism and misplaced privilege, Benoit and Marta will find that however this all turns out, the truth unerringly always finds it mark, even if those committed to preventing it are willing to kill to keep their secrets.
By the powers, this is a great movie. For starters, it has a magnificent ensemble of characters who are all so deftly brought to life by a barrage of masterful performances that each of them somehow manages to steal every scene they inhabit. There is Linda Drysdale (née Thrombey), the real estate mogul who seems to forget that she only got that way with a million-dollar loan from her father, Harlan. Her husband, Richard, is a shiftless playboy who is oblivious to just how close to the tree his own shiftless playboy son, Ransom, has fallen. Walt Thrombey pretends to be his father’s publisher but is just a feckless nobody. His wife, Donna is a jumpy, pearl-clutching souffle of white privilege, and their son Jacob is an aspiring young Nazi in a V-neck sweater. Joni Thrombey is a flakey lifestyle guru and influencer, but what the hell could she possibly be influencing? Her daughter Meg is kind and decent but doesn’t seem to understand that her very expensive college actually costs money. Together, they are a collection of folks who have all managed to dramatically fail forward thanks to the largesse of Harlan, without ever showing a drop of gratitude for it. They would be a most infuriating bunch of blue-bloods to behold if their dialogue wasn’t so funny, especially as they turn on each other.
The foil to all of this is Benoit, our detective, and Marta, our caretaker, who serve as the central fact-finders of the story, but also its dramatic fulcrum as certain secrets come to light. We root for Benoit to uncover the truth, being the traditional role of the eccentric investigator who is just a step ahead of everyone except, perhaps, the audience. His Deep South gentility and tortoise-like pursuit of truth and justice all make him the kind of guy one wouldn’t mind investigating one’s own crime. But we feel for Marta, an immigrant working dutifully for a family that does not deserve her. She lives on an eggshell-thin veneer of financial and legal security, which Harlan’s death threatens to shatter in more ways than one. For all of the Thrombeys’ bellyaching about how hard done by they would be if written out of Harlan’s will, they have nothing on what’s facing Marta and her family.
Few protagonists so easily win our support as Marta, who shows all of the cleverness, character and charm that made Harlan who he is, as well. To the rest of the family, she may be an outsider, but when we see in her the daughter Harlan kind of wishes he always had, we understand. The casual racism and classism with which Harlan’s family treats Marta builds a deeply political undertone to the proceedings, raising an pointed question: who really deserves this great, big house they’re all in? After all, few things are uglier than people with an outsized sense of entitlement over something they never earned. Except, perhaps, the desire to cruelly deprive somebody who has paid their dues of their just reward.
Lest the story get too heavy, however, it is still a delightful parlor mystery that—for all of its sharp dialogue, character dynamics, entertaining chronologies and one of the most hilariously described car chases ever filmed—ultimately brings us to the true payoff of any kind of whodunit: the reveal. And what a reveal it is, as Benoit deconstructs the nature of the mystery at hand. A donut inside of a donut, as he describes it, until he uncovers the truth once and for all. What makes it all so wonderful isn’t just that the police in the room are enjoying the reveal as much as we are, it’s the way justice is served. Not through clever detective work, cunning, treachery or killer instinct. But by being a good person who puts others before oneself. That truth never stays hidden for long. And it never, ever gets old.