With his new film Knives Out, Rian Johnson has rescued the crime writer from cosy evening telly and recast her for the here and now
A housekeeper finds the body of her multimillionaire boss in the study, his throat slit, a knife having dripped blood all over the white sheepskin rug. Shit! she says. It was unlike Agatha Christie to open a novel with a swearword. But this is not one of her books. Its the first line of Knives Out, the outrageously fun homage to the queen of crime from Rian Johnson, the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Knives Out stars Daniel Craig as a hot Poirot, the world-famous Louisiana private detective Benoit Blanc, hired to investigate the death of bestselling crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).
The police believe the case is an open-and-shut suicide; Blanc thinks otherwise. I suspect foul play, he says with a hokey deep-fried southern drawl. Was Thrombey killed by a member of his own family? A loathsome bunch; any one of them could be the killer.
Johnson is a man with clout and credibility. Hollywood is presumably rushing to tie his shoelaces after he directed the edgy cool indies Brick and Looper then took on George Lucass franchise. Yet in 2018 he spent his downtime between Star Wars episodes writing and directing his love letter to Christie, a novelist hitherto considered to be the purveyor of hot-water-bottle-cosy murder mysteries. Is that traditional view of Chistie dying a death?
Yes, says the Christie biographer Laura Thompson, who believes attitudes have been shifting for a few years. While I was writing the biography, I can remember going on to Radio 5 and being absolutely ridiculed by a couple of crime writers, naming no names, for writing about this quaint old dear. Now she has become cool, which I would never have predicted when I used to read her in secret.
Johnson tells me he discovered Christie on the bookshelf at his grandparents house. I was probably 11 or 12 and Ive never stopped [reading them]. Theres that line they always pull out that next to the Bible, Agatha Christie is the bestselling author of all time. So its weird to say shes under-rated as a writer, but I really think she is.
There is nothing cosy or antique about her novels, he says. Its not like she was an incredibly political or socially conscious writer. But she was engaging with gender roles; there was always the grumpy old colonel scowling at young women smoking cigarettes. She was very much writing to her time. The idea of doing that today felt very exciting.
And its the here-and-nowness that makes Knives Out so entertaining. As the Thrombey clan gather at the family pile in Massachusetts for the reading of the old boys will, they bear a striking resemblance to the adult children in HBOs Succession: the ruthless, spoilt, emotionally stunted offspring of a domineering self-made man. (Christie readers will spot similarities with her novel Crooked House.)
The film could not be more contemporary. This is a family divided alt-righters and cardigan-wearing liberals furiously arguing around the hearth about Mexican migrants locked up in cages on the border. One character speculates that Harlans Trump-supporting teenage grandson spends his time masturbating joylessly to pictures of dead deer. But truly this is the narcissism of small differences one Thrombey is as noxiously privileged and entitled as the next.