A modern twist on the classic whodunnit? Knives Out is a 2019 mystery film, written and directed by Rian Johnson.
Film Review by Sarah Jimenez
On the morning after his 85th birthday party, wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey, is found dead in his study. His throat is slit and the weapon is in his hand. Believing it to be a suicide, Lieutenant Elliot, with the help of his assistant (an avid mystery reader and Thrombey fan club member), interviews the attendants at the party as a formality. But lingering and listening in the background is private investigator, Benoit Blanc, known as the last of the gentlemen sleuths. In his eyes, everyone is suspect. [SPOILER] The only mystery other than who killed Thrombey is who hired the PI?
Knives Out begins as the classic whodunit murder mystery movie. It takes place in present day, in Harlan Thrombey’s eccentric brick mansion on a country estate in Massachusetts, adorned stereotypically with eclectic antiques, leather-bound books, and canvas paintings. Let’s meet the party guests/suspects:
Thrombey’s mother, Wanetta, or great Nana, is wheelchair bound with borderline dementia. She resembles Edna from The Incredibles with her eyes popping like ping-pong balls behind thick glasses, but she of course wears much, much more fur.
Linda Drysdale, the eldest daughter of Harlan Thrombey, is a self-proclaimed, self-made woman who earnestly started her real estate company with a million dollar (interest-free) loan from her father.
Her husband, Richard Drysdale, is a kept man with severely ignorant and reductive views on people of colour and immigration policies. He is the embodiment of “I’m not racist, BUT…”
Their son, the eldest grandson of Harlan, is Hugh Ransom Drysdale. He’s a handsome, tall, rotten alpha male who clearly suffers from “affluenza.”
Harlan’s son is Walter Thrombey, who was given the job of running the publishing side of the family business. All of his success is his father’s, and he is constantly reminded of it.
Walt is married to Donna who is more of a prop than a character; you’ll know who she is from her low tight bun, pearls, and bottomless martinis.
Their teenage son, Jacob Thrombey, is lanky and socially awkward, and dresses like he belongs to a 1950’s segregated tennis club. He subsists on his phone, trolling Facebook and Instagram with alt-right rhetoric, ever searching for social validation.
Joni Thrombey is Harlan’s daughter-in-law. She was married to the late Neil Thrombey, and is [SPOILER] secretly still supported by the Thrombey family fortune. Her rich hippie esthetic, progressive proclamations, and Gwyneth Paltrow GOOP vibes have earned her quite the Instagram following.
Her daughter is Megan Thrombey. Though she is the least stereotypical, and most authentic member of the Thrombey clan, her liberal arts degree from an east coast Ivy League college is still funded by her grandfather.
And there’s also the help.
Marta Cabrera is Harlan Thrombey’s nurse, friend, and confidant. She emigrated from Brazil, and has a strange medical condition where she cannot tell a lie, or she vomits. A truth serum of a sort, Benoit brings Marta along in his investigation to weed out testimony that doesn’t corroborate with Harlan’s private disclosures to her. They uncover intimate details of the Thrombey family’s dysfunction, as Benoit tries to solve who is responsible for the death of Harlan Thrombey.
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an ode to the classic murder mystery in the best possible way. Typical of the “whodunit” – the police can’t do their job, so a snooty private detective is hired, knowledge of drugs (à la Dorothy Sayers) is a significant asset to whoever will solve the mystery, there a dead body from the onset, everyone is wealthy, and everyone has a motive. But Johnson takes these elements from the genre’s golden age and refreshes what could be a predictable mystery with entertaining irreverence, inserting his own social commentary about privilege, politics, and wealth through the interactions and micro-aggressions of each character. With every twist in the plot, the true colours of even the most redeemable characters are revealed, speaking volumes about how people view themselves in the world. I didn’t expect to enjoy this movie so much, and I have little to criticize. The “whodunits,” as fun as they are to act out at murder mystery themed dinner parties, have always disappointed me because of their predictability and exclusivity to a certain class of people. Knives Out embraces every trope, and plays along with the dysfunction that is partnered with greed, and the “savage nature [that is] domesticated and constrained by human aesthetic principles” (Heney, 2020).
In the same way that Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express challenged the rule of ‘one murderer only’, Knives Out challenges the rule of excluding the help. Marta, the immigrant nurse, is the central character in the story. It is her connection to the real world, pitted against the Thrombey’s arrested development, which makes this story accessible and interesting for everyone. Johnson also casts two of the most iconic protagonists to play parts vastly opposite of what they’re known for. Daniel Craig, of James Bond fame, plays Benoit Blanc, and Chris Evans, also known as Captain America, plays Hugh Ransom Drysdale. His casting decisions alone act as red herrings for the audience, and we have to ask ourselves, what does that say about us? Knives Out is also a visual spectacle for movie aficionados; though at first glance, the chaos of the home is reminiscent of the Winchester Mystery House, every object has a story and a purpose.
Knives Out invites us to witness Harlan’s death, and the motive for it in the first thirty minutes. You wonder where the movie will go from there. What Johnson accomplishes in this storytelling structure is to pull you into the game. With each new discovery, you learn that you are on a different adventure than what you were on when you started. Who are you rooting for? Whose side are they on? Who is the murderer? What crime actually took place? Knives Out is a complicated symphony that keeps you invested and entertained, until the long dramatic monologue that, in the typical golden age of mystery fashion, reveals everything in the end.
“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue. And as we can see from this morning, everyone can lie”
-Benoit Blanc, Knives Out (2019, 31:45)
Heney, Alison. “Module Nine: First Generation Cozies and Agatha Christie” University of California Berkeley Extension. English X103.9-009 Mystery Fiction. Web. 10 June 2020.