My husband and I went to see Knives Out in the theater, before the theaters were closed. The movie is glorious—stunningly beautiful cinematography and wonderful performances by an all-star cast, old favorites and newcomers alike.
Harlan Thrombey, celebrated mystery writer, is dead. His housekeeper finds him in his upstairs study the morning after his 85th birthday party, throat slit with a knife—a death worthy of any of his wildly popular novels. The police have concluded it was a suicide, but they come back to the house to interview Harlan’s family members, just to make sure they aren’t missing anything. Each family member sits in the interview chair with a giant piece of artwork behind them, a thousand knives and daggers arranged in circles around a sort of empty donut hole in the middle—an objet d’art that is wonderfully expressive of the movie’s “who dunnit and why?” theme. While the police ask their questions, a gentleman lounges behind them, listening to the testimony and occasionally playing a single note on the piano. He tries to remain in the background and let the cops do their job, but he cannot stay quiet and eventually jumps up and begins questioning the witnesses.
The gentleman sleuth is Benoit Blanc, who was hired to look into the matter by—we don’t know whom. He received an envelope with cash and a newspaper article about Harlan’s death. After the unsatisfying testimony of Harlan’s children and their spouses (dissemblers, all), Blanc enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrera, to help him look into the facts and events surrounding Harlan’s death.
I will not spoil the plot for you. (Well, not much, anyway). There are two things I want to talk about. The first is the setting. In the vein of Midsomer Murders, Harlan’s mansion is every bit one of the characters. The film was shot in Massachusetts in the fall, partly at the Ames mansion and partly at an undisclosed private home. The mansion is all mahogany and stained-glass windows and filled with marvelous period pieces like a carved wood sea captain on the stair case landing, a bronze sculpture of two German shepherds, vintage magic posters, a “stash clock” on the mantlepiece, and so on. I seriously need the set decorators from this movie to give our house a makeover.
The second is, of course, Harlan’s will. Harlan’s attorney arrives at the mansion for the reading of the will, something which I guess used to be a “thing” in estate law practice but has gone the way of all flesh, as far as I can tell. Blanc tells Marta to forget the drama of the reading, to think of it instead as being like a “community theater production of a tax return.” Ha ha—wills are a lot more exciting than tax returns, I dare say. And indeed, the reading of the will is pretty exciting. Before they even get that far, Harlan’s children, their spouses and children literally get into a fist fight.
The lawyer “sets up” and summons the family in. He produces and reads aloud two documents: the first is a short statement written by Harlan and addressed to his family members, encouraging them to accept his will—“It’s for the best.” The second is the will itself, which appears to be a one-page document with no witness signatures evident and which the lawyer says Harlan drafted himself and delivered to the lawyer’s office the previous week. (Wow—really? Exactly what did he hire the lawyer for? Document storage?) Harlan needed a good estate planner: No witnesses, no trust, no named executor; just a big load of estate taxes and probate fees.
But the film, as you may imagine, centers on the big surprise Harlan had up his sleeve, one that does not please his progeny: they have all been disinherited. His children press the lawyer for help—how can this be set aside? The lawyer—who (ethics alert!) was Harlan’s lawyer even if he did not draft the will—gives them advice: if he was of sound mind, you not liking it doesn’t make it invalid. But what about undue influence, one of them asks. “Did you just Google that?” shoots back the lawyer. But there is no basis for this either—Harlan left everything to a person who impressed him by having a good heart and working hard. All they have left is the Slayer Rule: which (in Nevada, anyway) provides that one who intentionally and feloniously kills another cannot benefit from the killing by inheriting from the deceased victim. But Harlan committed suicide, the lawyer points out. No good either. Or…is it?
Go see the movie. It’s really good. Ebert gives it the thumbs up: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/knives-out-2019. I bet you Siskel would have liked it too.