This reminds me a lot of The Prestige. Not so much in storytelling (though there are some similarities), but in terms of how a director made a very financially successful film and followed it up with something much smaller as a way to recharge his batteries. It’s clever, witty, and fun, but it’s more of a way for Rian Johnson to stretch his creative legs than anything else. Still, it’s a good time at the movies.
A lot got made of the film’s early reveal of the central death, and it does provide a certain level of uncertainty as the film moves beyond it. It feels like there’s no more of the mystery to explore for a long stretch, and we’re left with our main character, Marta, as she navigates the mess she suddenly finds herself in. It’s gonna be hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, so I’ll actually give a warning. Skip to the final paragraph to skip the spoilers.
So, Marta is Harlan Thrombey’s nurse. He is the patriarch of a screwed up family allowed to be screwed up because of his financial success bred from a long series of detective and mystery novels (one of which is titled around knives, hence the circle of knives that features prominently in the marketing). The night of his 85th birthday, when his whole family came to visit, Marta accidentally gives Harlan 100mg of morphine. Knowing what she’s done and unable to find the drug to counteract the morphine, she explains to Harlan that he’s going to die in the next ten minutes. Harlan, seeing his impending death, the guilt that will be placed on Marta, knowledge of what he’s done with his will recently, and desirous of keeping his family away from their inheritance completely, decides that he’s going to cut his own throat, making his death an obvious suicide.
Marta helped stage the scene as well, breaking back into the house to help clean up, but she left a trail of evidence that she never noticed and only becomes aware of as she walks with private detective Benoit Blanc through the scene. She’s guilty of killing Harlan, but it was an accident. It was also obvious that Harlan liked her better than he liked any of his children. We end up liking her because of her innocence and her inability to lie (leading her to vomit every time that she tries), and as a contrast to the hornet’s nest that is Harlan’s family.
Everyone hates everyone else. There are affairs, thefts, lack of ambition, and general unpleasantness all around. Harlan had bred a group of ungrateful loafs when he had thought that he was raising men and women who would build their own legacies as he had. He wants to cut them off for their own good. However, he told his grandson Ransom too early. This is where the twists actually begin to pile up. Ransom switched the medication in Marta’s bag, so Marta hadn’t actually poisoned Harlan and he had just killed himself. Ransom gets tricked into admitting it in front of the police (complete with Marta lying and holding in the vomit just long enough).
The movie is clever. It tries to convince you early that you know the twists and that you’re just going to follow the main character through the investigation that just won’t stop because of the doggedness of Benoit Blanc, but it leaves more twists to come while providing enough time between to focus on Marta and her troubles to act as a convincing red herring while also creating enough character work to make people that we can invest in. There’s a whole host of activity going on including a coroner’s report, the housemaid, and a security videotape. Marta’s journey through the morass of the family out to get her after they discover that Harlan left her everything in the will and Blanc’s tireless pursuit of the truth moves through the family, eventually settling on Ransom as an unlikely ally.
Ultimately, I found it entertaining but a bit thin. There is an idea about heritage and inheritance that runs through the film, but it seems small compared to the movements back and forth with the plot. Marta’s likeable while the rest of the family are different degrees of awful. It’s twisty and turny, keeping you guessing, and leaves satisfyingly. It’s a nice time at the movies. I just hope that Johnson doesn’t become solely dedicated to more films in this nascent series. It was amusing, but he could be doing more.