Take your classic whodunnit format, sprinkle in some Coenesque humour, a ridiculously toxic dysfunctional family, impeccably clever writing and Daniel Craig’s strangest and possibly most brilliant performance, and you get what? Rian Johnson’s wonderful new comedy-thriller that, without equivocation, ranks as his greatest effort yet (sorry, Brick & Looper, I adore you guys, but you’ve been trumped).
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is an eye-wateringly rich, highly respected novelist of crime mysteries, and he has gathered his progeny to his mansion in celebration of his 85th birthday. The next morning, his housekeeper dutifully takes his breakfast up to his study, only to find him dead as a dodo with his throat slit, cutthroat still in hand. (This all takes place in the first few minutes, you won’t catch me with my spoiler-pants down).
Harlan was in an unenviable predicament of being a fundamentally decent man whose children and grandchildren are all a bunch of dicks. Embezzlement, adultery, bigotry, delusional narcissism. If you had to spend a night in a room with these arseholes, you’d gladly slit your own throat and dangle yourself upside down from the rafters like a piece of halal chicken. With all of them having their respective beef with the old man, they recongregate at his home the following day to submit to questioning from local Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), who are assisted in interrogation by the film’s crowning glory, independently hired private investigator, Benoit Blanc.
In his most daring portrayal so far, Daniel Craig swaps up his typecast edgy middle-class English bad-boy image for that of a deeply eccentric and theatrical sleuth, supplemented by an outrageous Louisiana accent, bifocals and a liking for stogies (It’s a hell of a lot more commanding than his appearance in the debacle that was Logan Lucky, though that is no fault of his own). This Cajun Columbo smells that something is off from the get-go, and sets about probing the ensemble in his firmly animated yet Southernly genteel manner. Retreading the previous night via flashbacks, Harlan’s nearest and dearest recall their uneasy relationships with him, Blanc firing off on all cylinders in his attempts to ascertain whether Harlan’s death was really a suicide, and if it wasn’t, cui bono?
One of the aspects that enamoured me the most with this film is, and I’m going to lift from Mark Kermode here as he put it best, it’s a very, very funny drama, not a comedy. Make no mistake, the humour is outstanding, but holistically, it’s an excellently constructed murder mystery, replete with uncomfortable familial politics, morality play, the arrogant callousness of WASPs toward those below their station, and the perils of contemplating your legacy in old age. The one character who appears to truly possessive of a virtuous personality, Harlan’s personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), is a Uruguayan migrant, constantly patronised by the extended family in their smug faux-affability. Even Harlan’s granddaughter Meg, who is depicted as a socially conscious and ”woke” student activist, resentful of her family’s insular superiority complex, is merely another posturing navel-gazer.
As Stanfield’s character mentions early on in proceedings, Harlan ”lived in a giant ‘Clue’ (Cluedo to us Brits, but whatever) board”, and like the game, is so predicated on mystery that it would be counterproductive to provide any more exposition, however vague. It’s a wonderful film that pays homage to classic movies such as 1972’s outstanding Sleuth, starring Michael Caine & Laurence Olivier (get the hell on that one if you’ve yet to see it) and Hercule Poirot tales, crafting a hilarious, emotive and ingenious cinematic experience that is expertly layered for re-watch. I’ll eat my invisible hat if it doesn’t knock your socks off.