A sprawling estate, occupied by a megalomaniac billionaire that fancies himself an empire builder, with a trio of large adult children that hate him and crave his approval in equal measure, and his new young foreign wife, ostracized by the rest of the family. Crooked House could be accused of being almost too-transparent Trump hate-fic if it wasn’t based on Agatha Christie’s 1949 novel, which she said was one of her personal favorites. It certainly feels less like a murder mystery than it does a work of sociological speculative fiction, about isolation and toxic exceptionalism and the ways in which a family’s pathology distills itself through the generations. It has its creaky corners, but there are enough twists and shocks to keep it engaging throughout.
Directed with slightly sleepy, but entertainingly morbid style by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the colorful ensemble piece opens with the death of tycoon Aristide Leonides, in what is first reported as a heart attack but revealed to be a poisoning. Leonides’s granddaughter Sophia (Stefanie Martini) hires her ex-fling and struggling private investigator Charles Hayward to look into the case before the law gets involved, and he travels to the estate, trying desperately to penetrate the weird, hermetic vibe at the Leonidas house. He goes from chamber to lavishly eccentric chamber, meeting the shotgun-toting sister of the victim’s late first wife (Glenn Close in total and delightful ham mode), his failed screenwriter son and his failed actress wife (a boozy, excellent Gillian Anderson), his emo grandson (Preston Nyman playing the evil-twin version of Timothée Chalamet’s character in Call Me by Your Name) and his young granddaughter Josephine, a murder-mystery aficionado who spends her days spying on her screwed-up family and keeping tabs on them in her diary.
The MVP here is Christina Hendricks as Brenda, the deceased’s former-showgirl second wife. The lone American in the house, she’s a mid-century Anna Nicole, and despite being the most obvious suspect, the only one in the house who appears to have any kind of heart. A riotous dinner scene about halfway through the film brings the antipathy between her and the rest of the family to the fore, and it’s a lot of fun. It should also go without saying that this is the kind of mystery where the detective is easily the least interesting thing about it, and beyond that, he’s not all that good at his job. We’re not rooting for Hayward to crack the case so much as we’re waiting for the solution to fall on his head before it’s too late.
An underlying, and darkly hilarious, theme of Crooked House is the degree to which failed artistic ambitions play into the family’s fate. Several characters feel a lingering sense of betrayal that Aristide refused to fund their passion projects, no matter how daft and misguided they are. This feels like a throwaway detail until the film’s shockingly macabre finale, in which the true extent of the Leonides’s sense of entitlement is revealed. The film ends mere seconds after this revelation, and doesn’t seem terribly interested in interrogating the motivations at work. But Crooked House knows what its job is: to set up a tangled web of colorful characters, throw in a few red herrings, set off its dynamite, and make its exit while the smoke is still in the air.