“Knives Out,” one of the more interesting and entertaining movies of 2019, attempts something that has never really been done before: adapting the classic murder mystery, an inherently conservative genre, to modern progressive discourse rebuking casually expressed racism, latent sexism and classicism. The film even expresses overt political resistance to the current administration’s draconian immigration policy. All while rattling your cage with scary noises and teasing your brain with devious schemes.
Rian Johnson’s film — the plot involves the murder of an aged mystery novelist inside his own country house with various heirs and staffers as the chief suspects — surely is the most woke murder-mystery movie ever made.
Which begs the question: Does it win the battle with the form? Has it changed something very familiar, and maybe very regressive, for the good? Or has it fallen into its own trap?
To answer all that, it’s helpful to consider Agatha Christie. In the popular imagination, this British author is the mistress of the clever mystery plot, usually involving a perplexing murder, numerous potential suspects and an enigmatic detective with unconventional methods. As the keepers of her flame like to say, Christie gets outsold only by William Shakespeare and the Bible. Her detective novels and short stories have sold more than 1 billion copies. You can bet that when Johnson was pitching his movie to studio executives, Christie’s name came up.
Christie mostly was following a template mastered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes detective fictions and the man who popularized the form. (He didn’t invent it; the likes of Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe have claims there and some would say the whodunit genre dates back to the stories inside the ancient Arabian epic “One Thousand and One Nights.”) But Holmes and Watson were stuffy dudes; Christie’s Hercule Poirot was a lot more fun, and her stories of guests trapped in some confined environment (a house, a train, an island) proved hugely popular in Hollywood for decades. “Murder on the Orient Express” offers five words everyone knows.
But those Christie stories now often are viewed as problematic. There have been charges of racism, especially involving “And Then There Were None,” one of her biggest hits and a work that once carried a very different title when first published in Britain. Some have seen
As with horror, crime fiction relies on positing an “other,” something terrifying that both captivates and scares a reader or an audience member and that, eventually, can be beaten back into submission and send the consumer back to normalcy wiping a brow. Christie’s “others” tend to be things at variance with a traditional power-structure: dangerously exotic locations, for example, or overly passionate people or mentally unstable individuals. They act up, and they get taken down by the majority.
Johnson challenges all of that, not the least by casting actors like Christopher Plummer and Daniel Craig, stars previously associated with celebrations of patriarchal authority, from Captain von Trapp to James Bond. In “Knives Out,” Johnson thoroughly upends the Christie model of fundamentally decent people trying to repel the murderer in their midst. His characters are complacent and self-serving, casually racist in their dealings with the film’s central character, a Latina homecare nurse (richly played by Ana de Armas) who is especially vulnerable due to the immigration status of her own family. Johnson makes her a near-perfect person, a shining beacon of integrity in stark contrast to all the flawed characters surrounding her.
At times, “Knives Out” feels a murder-mystery version of the HBO series “Succession,” another example of a hugely successful drama that feeds our current desire to ogle at the horrific behavior of those whose power flows from inherited wealth. Such people are the chief villains of 2019, the year of the college admissions scandal.
In “Succession,” and many similar shows, the establishment is widely seen as morally corrupt and the whole notion of being a rightful heir is viewed as a kind of moral pollution, indicative of the last gasps of a dying and non-meretricious American aristocracy of the economically privileged. In both “Knives Out” and “Succession,” we watch example after example of insensitivity, self-absorption, personal fragility and elitism. The only hope for salvation, both these neo-socialist works say, lies not with finding an individual villain (there will just be another) but upending an entire system.
Or course, “Succession” is a satire and it thus can focus entirely on powerful white people behaving badly. Like a progressive complainant on Twitter, it does not have to offer a solution to how a kinder and gentler capitalist society might figure all this out.
“Knives Out,” though, has to resolve the disruption. Murder mysteries need endings. The puzzle must be solved. And that’s where Johnson hits other issues.
In a shrewd New York Times column this week, critic Monica Castillo described her experience
It’s also indicative of a hoary old genre repelling reinvention. Murder mysteries were born in a world and a time where the establishment rules were seen as positives, even in domestic settings; people consumed them to be comforted by the notion that Poirot or Miss Marple would restore order.
Order restored? We are no longer in that time. Much more complicated now.