Rian Johnson manages to create an extremely elaborate, well-crafted, well-paced mystery with a hell of a message.
The great mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead, apparently having slit his own throat. Despite the fact that it appears clearly self-inflicted, the great detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate the Thrombey household. This includes Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s needy youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their Alt-Right son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s flighty widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), and her perpetual student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). Not on the suspect list is Harlan’s kind and honest nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), one of his closest friends and Benoit Blanc’s new assistants. However, not everything is as it seems, and almost everyone has a motive to have caused Harlan’s untimely demise. It turns out that many members are much more desperate than they appear at first, and when people get desperate, the knives come out.
I’m a big fan of detective fiction, as evidenced by the tattoo of Sherlock Holmes on my chest. While I was concerned at first that this movie would be a little more of a mystery farce in the vein of Clue (which I also love), I can assure you that while this movie has many funny parts, the film is an extremely well-crafted whodunnit. There are traditionally two kinds of whodunnits: One is the kind where the audience is just as much in the dark as the characters, and one where the audience is told some version of events that the characters aren’t and the deduction is in finding out the missing how. This movie is more akin to the latter, but it’s done in a style that I’ve only seen done well a few times in fiction and never this well in a movie. I don’t want to reveal too much about the structure, but let me say that it simultaneously tells the audience everything they need to know to figure out the mystery from about 25 minutes in, but also paces all the reveals and red herrings so perfectly that you’ll never be 100% sure. Even if you do guess the ending relatively early on, trust me, it’s still just a really well crafted narrative.
Honestly, almost everything in this movie is high-level. The sets, particularly the mansion in which most of the film takes place, are all immaculate. The mansion contains tons of references to Harlan’s fictional bibliography, some of which are identified and others are references to titles shown to the audience. It is also filled with the kind of relics and odd antiques that a mystery mansion is supposed to have. I think one of my favorite elements is that every room has a bar in it, either open or, more often, hidden. It IS a writer’s house, after all; sobriety is for the reader.
The characters are all great. Every performance is on point and the personalities are intentionally so diverse that you could guess who said any given line just by the content. Their outfits are so similarly diverse that it really does feel like a Clue board, where you can tell the characters by just a glance. They each have their strange idiosyncrasies which play into the mystery. Also, Chris Evans rocks a sweater.
The structure of the film starts with the Rashomon-style interrogation in which it becomes clear that everyone remembers the night of Harlan’s death a little differently and, while the audience sees more than the characters say, we also get some inconsistencies in the depictions. It works to quickly establish the duplicity of the suspects and also to give the audience some clues to play with. From there, it plays out similar to most detective stories.
Overall, this is just a great film and I recommend it to everyone.
ENDING EXPLAINED (SPOILERS)
So, just a reminder: Marta thought she’d overdosed Harlan with morphine. Fearing for her mom’s safety as an illegal immigrant, Harlan killed himself and set up a way to avoid suspicion on Marta. Turns out that she hadn’t overdosed Harlan because Ransom had switched the vials, planning on framing her for killing Harlan. He ends up going to jail and Marta gets all of Harlan’s money.
Watching the last third of the movie was exactly what I was looking for: A great detective breaking everything down dramatically. It’s clear that everything in the movie was setting up for this ultimate and amazing explanation and it pays off. Even though from the beginning we are led to think that Marta is the innocent woman who is being tormented by a completely understandable mistake and circumstances. Sure, the missing Naloxone from the kit stands out as the first hint that something more may be at play, but it’s also completely possible that it was really just a tragic accident. Since we know that Marta is a good person, watching her torment herself over the truth is just as terrible as watching the Thrombey family try to torment her to give them their money back. That doubles the satisfaction when it’s revealed that not only was it not her fault, but that she was in fact an unwitting victim.
This plays into a big theme in the movie that I really like: The power of kindness. Benoit Blanc points it out himself when he says that Marta ends up winning not by playing Harlan’s game or by playing the Thrombey’s game, but by playing her game and being a kind and honest person. She is saved because she works so hard to save Fran (Edi Patterson) even though it means her own end, allowing her to make the final gambit against Ransom and getting him to confess. The movie makes it clear that the thing that sets her apart is that she is caring, she is genuine, and she is selfless. When Meg, a seemingly honest person, betrays Marta, Marta not only says she’s going to help Meg, but forgives her instantly, understanding her position. The movie even drives home that basically no one in the family can comprehend Harlan’s lesson to them and it’s not just that Marla is kinder than they are, it’s that she is actually the American dream like Harlan was.
Harlan makes a large point out of being self-made, as do his children. The problem is that none of the children are actually self-made. Linda, Harlan’s favorite, does at least run her own company and thus is not really being cut off, but she only has the company because Harlan loaned her Eight Million Dollars that she used to found it. Joni doesn’t really work and has just been stealing from Harlan using Meg as a cover. Even after Harlan gives her enough money to pay for the rest of Meg’s college, she lies and tells Meg that she can’t pay for it so that Meg will betray Marta. Walt basically only has anything because his father allows him to publish his books and even that’s not enough for him. At the end of the movie, Marta, who had nothing, became an expert nurse and Go player, and is the daughter of an illegal immigrant, has everything. She’s literally above them all on the balcony.
I do also want to comment, possibly to my own detriment, on the fact that Rian Johnson gave all of the Thrombeys wildly different political views and personalities. When they’re comfortable, they fight over politics and philosophies, ranging from Richard’s casual racism to Joni’s Liberalism to Jacob’s very direct racism, we’re still shown that they’re all fairly equally dismissive of Marta, just using her as an example to back their side when convenient (and none of them bother to know which country her family is from). However, once the money is threatened, they’re all united on one point: Get the money back. They all come up with different justifications for why they deserve the money, but despite the fact that they’ve all been earning much more than 99% of the world for the last few decades, all of them believe they’re entitled to more. It’s a not-so-subtle commentary, indicating that the wealthy will always want more. Marta, like Harlan, is more likely to be generous because they were poor once and value having things more. Ultimately, while the movie shows the Thrombeys fighting over politics as a “liberal versus conservative” battle, the final and more honest struggle is between the exploiters and the exploited. It’s a pretty solid theme to sneak into a mystery film.
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