Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s 2019 offering, is a surpsingly entertaining whodunit with immense rewatch value. It’s also a superbly crafted film that upended conventions. And…it somehow made detective fiction cool again. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle are long gone, so…high time to inject the genre with new blood! Enter Rian Johnson and his unorthodox writing style. And I mean unorthodox in a good way.
Anyway, what would Sherlock Holmes be like in the 21st century? A suave womanizing spy with a proclivity for drink? No? Wrong Daniel Craig character? He’d be…a human Foghorn Leghorn? A redneck in a posh New England mansion? Okay, then…
Whatever makes the character stand out, I guess. Considering how theatrical and flamboyant Benoit Blanc was in Knives Out, it wouldn’t suprise me if the southern drawl was fake (for the character). For all I know, he’ll do a French accent in the Netflix sequel. Hey, just an idea. The film will be taking place in Greece. What better way to act like you’re among the locals yet from a different region?
So the film opens with an upbeat musical number, showing a thoroughly-decorated New England mansion. A housekeeper is preparing breakfast and goes upstairs to find her boss. After checking his bedroom, she finds it mysteriously empty. She ascends to the attic, which is quiet as a mouse.
And there she finds it: the body of her boss, the great crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, laying down with his back against the wall. His throat cruelly slashed, and his blood gushing out undisturbed, staining the polished floors of his proud mansion.
All the while, the whimsical music persists. The housekeeper doesn’t look the least bit disturbed. Instead, she loses her hold on the breakfast platter and drops some food. Ho-hum. Welcome to Knives Out, a film that gloriously exonerates itself of all the whodunit tropes one can muster.
Detective fiction has operated on a formula that unfortunately limits rewatch value. Even Murder on the Orient Express, arguably the most famous murder mystery of all time, is tough to sit through on second viewing. For those who haven’t read the book or watched the film adaptations, don’t worry. This is a Knives Out article, so I won’t spoil a different story altogether.
And yes, there will be Knives Out spoilers in this article, obviously. Second warning’s the charm.
So how does Knives Out break itself from the whodunit mold? And how did it benefit from a cinematic perspective?
Knives Out is NOT a film that takes itself seriously. The above-mentioned first scene doesn’t conclude with a frightened scream from the unassuming housekeeper as she discovers the dead body. Just an “oops, dropped my late boss’s breakfast. Silly me.”
Through the film are moments made unforgettable by impeccable comedic timing. Who can forget Michael Shannon’s epic “single red dime” rant to his nephew Ransom? Or Trooper Wagner’s fanatical obsession with mystery novels and Hallmark movies? Or Benoit’s famous philosophical waxing about doughnuts?
Why sully a good moviegoing experience with dreary, morbid characters who seem too wont to commit murder? To make them seem as darkly mysterious as possible? Why make all the males Johnny Depps? Or all the ladies Helena Bonham Carters? To ensure high DVD sales and Redbox rentals, you need to provide levity to keep the audience coming back. You need to give the characters personality quirks to make them memorable and three-dimensional.
And, speaking of dimensions…
While Knives Out bills itself a whodunit/murder mystery, it’s only one in the first thirty minutes. The reason being the central mystery is virtually solved at the half-hour mark. Benoit symbolically flips a coin while questioning Marta, Harlan’s younger caregiver (the moment the movie “flips” genres).
After seeing Marta’s flashback, we discover that Harlan’s death was not a murder, but a suicide. Marta accidently administered him with 100 milligrams of morphine which would’ve killed him in a matter of minutes. To get Marta out of trouble, Harlan conjures up a plan which involves her leaving the house, climbing the trellis, and momentarily posing as him for one of the family members to see from a distance.
How can a movie be a murder mystery if there’s no murder or mystery to begin with? At this point, it becomes a suspense thriller. We know Marta is innocent and is even phyiscally-repulsed by lying. Basically, lying makes her throw up. I know, how more pure-hearted can one get? It’s almost adorable.
No longer is the movie about the detective. It’s about the main suspect. We begin rooting for the perp. And the inspector? Well, let’s just say he’s no longer in our good books.
The Detective is the Villain
Fictional detectives, like Sherlock and Hercule Poirot, are unequivocal forces of good in their worlds. They’re there to uncover the veil of evil and eloquently explain to the audience of the perp’s diabolical designs.
But how can the detective be the hero of the story when the perp he’s chasing…isn’t evil? When the perp is a lower-class immigrant girl who literally pukes after telling a lie? For the great duration of the film, we see Benoit Blanc as a bumbling villain. In his pursuit of the truth, we cross our fingers and hope the ole Deus Ex Machina shows up and throws the ole monkey wrench in said pursuits.
Knives Out flips the dynamic of perp and detective. The former is the hero of the story, while the latter is the (unwitting) villain. Though this changes in the last fifteen minutes when Blanc holds Ransom hostage in an epic standoff.
No Saving Grace for the Jerk!
Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) is first seen storming out of Harlan’s office after an argument, and leaving the party. Ransom is described as the “black sheep” of the family. According to in-film dialogue, Ransom has a history of stirring the pot and causing intra-family conflicts. Not even his parents like him.
But…he has a redeeming quality, right? He’s gotta have one! I mean, all of us who grew up watching Scooby Doo would know the blatant jerk is always the innocent party at episode’s end. There’s no way people can be so openly despicable AND murderous. Right?
Wrong. Despite our hope for a Ransom redemption arc, it never happens. Ransom is a jerk just because. The film fools us into thinking that because he’s the black sheep of a snobby, self-entitled family, that he’s intrinsically good. He’s not. He’s infinitely worse than they are, there should be no debate.
Ransom tried to frame Marta for murder and steal his grandfather’s inheritance. The rest of the family had no interest involving Benoit or even invoking the dreaded “slayer rule.” They even scoffed at the notion of Marta using foul play and causing Harlan’s death. They thought she was too innocent for that, and they were right.
Instead, the family tried using underhanded emotional tactics to get their way, and that’s as far as they went. They would manipulate Marta into surrendering Harlan’s fortune and returning it to them. Sleazy snobs they were, murderers they were not.
While Knives Out was groundbreaking cinema because it upended conventions, the real entertainment value lay in its screenplay. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, after all (and lost to Parasite). I used to believe that great screenplays went down to cool, snappy dialogue. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
A screenplay’s quality goes down to the themes of the story and how said themes are relevant to the characters. It goes down to their individual personalities, how they react to each other’s actions, and how this moves the plot forward. Really, it’s a whole set of factors that go beyond the scope of this article. Simply put, it’s more complex than simply writing suave Tarantino-esque dialogue.
In Knives Out, we have an upper class family vying for their late patriarch’s multimillion dollar inheritance. These family members spent half of the film going at each other’s throats due to perceived personality differences.
Family Dynamics – In-Laws
For any film detailing a family’s corrosion, you have to involve the in-laws (if you’re married, you would know). Walt and Richard (Ron Johnson), brothers-in-law, are at odds with each other. When we’re introduced to Richard, he reveals his condescension toward Walt for not really being in charge of the family’s publishing company.
Richard sees Walt as his father’s parasite. But what’s interesting is Richard himself is also a parasite. He leeches off his wife Linda and her real estate business. He can’t divorce Linda for half her pocketbook since there’s a little thing called a “prenup.”
Walt and Richard rag the other’s son in each other’s presence. They attack their child-rearing skills, which is the worst insult any parent can take. Richard calls Walt’s son a “Nazi” and a “creep” even when he espouses decidely anti-immigrant rhetoric himself in. (Nazi, much?) He’s also having an affair with a younger woman. (Creep, much?)
Walt in turn bashes Ransom, Richard’s son, for being…well, an overall douchebag. People like Richard sometimes hide their politics to avoid conflicts. Others aren’t so prudent.
Family Dynamics – Politics
The Left and Right of American politics is displayed mostly through two juveniles. Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell) exemplify the College liberal and Alt-Right youth, respectively. During the Trump administration of the late 2010s, the heart of soul of America’s youth were hanging over a tug of war between these two cliques.
What’s more is how their politics stemmed from their direct family. Meg’s father, Neil Thrombey, passed away fifteeen years before the film’s events. Her mother, Joni (Toni Collette) raised her on her own. It’s not a stretch to say Meg was influenced by her mother’s extreme feminist leanings. It isn’t uncommon for children raised by single mothers to espouse leftist/feminist ideals. I mean, Meg even wears a shirt with a vagina on it. Kinda on the nose, that.
Jacob grew up in wealth and privilege. He witnessed the help being composed of women and immigrants. A young child seeing females and people of color subservient to rich, white people may make him less sympathetic to their struggles. Of course, this is conjecture. Jacob is described as a “troll,” meaning he posts things online to get a rise out of others.
But Linda, being the self-made businesswoman, scoffs at the idea of Meg’s “crypto-Marxist-postdeconstructional” degree. (She’s a real estate magnate who started with a million-dollar loan from her father. Sound familiar?) This ridicule rubs off on her son Ransom, who views Meg the same way, though uses less tact.
Despite the family’s political leanings and heated debates, their ideals crumble in the face of external threats to their fortune. They say there is no solidarity like upper class solidarity. The Thrombeys know this all too well.
Family Dynamics – Class Solidarity
During the will reading scene, Harlan’s entire estate goes to Marta, his immigrant caregiver. Suddenly, the family’s differences, both political and personal, went straight out the window. Suddenly, their “extended family” in Marta was now an enemy. They resorted to seedy tactics like browbeating and guilt-tripping, simply to get their payday.
Joni, ever-supportive of immigrants, manipulated her daughter into joining their ranks against Marta. She claimed they wouldn’t be able to afford her tuition, even though Harlan had already paid off the remainder in his last conversation with her. The family worked feverishly to conjure up legal manuevers to get the inheritance back. Ransom, of course, resorted to murder.
Money is the root of all evil. It is indeed the root of all division. Strangely, it’s also the magnetic attraction that pulled the Thrombeys together, for better or worse. Several viewings yield the pertinent details of the Thrombey family and all their seedy machinations. Knives Out is not about the death of Harlan Thrombey.
Upper Class America: A Treatise
Rather, it’s what Harlan’s death revealed about his family and all those in upper-class America. It also revealed the consequences his initial wealth had caused, despite his best intentions. Walt lived on the family dole under the illusion of amounting to something, but never creating something that was his. Joni used her daughter to siphon allowance payments for her own benefit.
Ransom shared most of Harlan’s traits, as both characters mused. They even shared the same criminal creativity. Remember how they conjured up similar plots involving the trellis and sneaking up to the attic? The difference was Ransom didn’t have the ambition to work for something. He was spoiled rotten by Harlan’s wealth and never amounted to anything.
Great Screenplay 2.0
Great stories are not about the central plot device, in this case a death under mysterious circumstances. They’re about the characters surrounding that plot device. Great screenplays are what lies beneath initial viewings and leaves us hungry for more. Hungry to satisfy our curiosities about the latent nature of the film’s cast.
The screenplay is what makes Knives Out the best murder mystery since The Maltese Falcon. Its draw and appeal go far beyond the mystery. They lie in the intrigue, well-timed comedy, and richness of characterization. With a Netflix sequel on the way, one can hope Knives Out will inspire a resurgence of the long lost genre of whodunits. One can hope.
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