Here we have a well-made movie whose plot resembles that of a 20th century mystery novel or film — one corpse, many suspects, an inscrutable detective and a many-pieced puzzle whose resolution is not revealed until the very end.
It opens with a deep autumn view of a grand brick country house in Massachusetts. A string quartet renders a slow tune in a minor key as police cars pull up to the place.
The matter at issue is the death of a famed, wealthy mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumber), who is discovered by the housekeeper who brings up his morning breakfast and finds his stiff body with slit throat. Police investigators arrive, examine the 85-year-old man’s corpse and conclude immediately that he killed himself. Happens all the time, right?
As the cops question the man’s children, private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) sits listening in the next room and occasionally plinking a piano key. Blanc has been hired to investigate the death, he says, but he does not know by whom. Over time, he establishes that Thrombey spent his last evening on earth settling old scores and disinheriting his progeny and their children — before and during his own birthday dinner party.
The relatives are his son, Walter (Michael Shannon); daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis); Linda’s two-timing husband, Richard (Don Johnson); daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and the progeny’s progeny, including obnoxious Ransom (Chris Evans), son of Linda and Richard.
Blanc seeks help from Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the nurse who tended to the dead author and was the only one smart enough to beat him regularly at the Go board game. Blanc does not wear a Sherlockian deerstalker hat, but he calls Cabrera “Watson.”
A major theme in this piece, of course, is knives. The film shares its name, but not its score, with a famous Radiohead song, and it features an ornamental circle of knives that, among all the other gewgaws in the overstuffed mansion, is shiny and features as the background for many interviews. Plus there is a comment from the dead author.
Make no mistake. This is not a matter like Agatha Christie’s 1935 Murder on the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot drinking his tisane in a prissy fashion, and it certainly doesn’t resemble Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) in The Maltese Falcon. Benoit Blanc is a cool character with a broad Southern accent and a tendency, when thinking, to flip coins into the air and catch them.
The script has been updated further to include themes of the current day: Political arguments around the family dinner table, a reference to a line from the Hamilton musical, seeming familial affection for nurse Cabrera but inability to remember the country from which she emigrated, cellphone messages and, of course, claims of pride for hoity-toity influencers.
The screenwriter and director, Rian Johnson, seems to have been concocting the story over many years, and he has said he’d like to make a sequel with the Blanc character.
In fact, he and Daniel Craig may get the chance. The film received good reviews and sold more tickets than might have been expected its first weekend, given a limited promotion budget.
The question is whether film audiences — here and outside the Anglosphere — are interested in such stories any longer.