Arts and Entertainment

Check Out “Knives Out”

With brilliant writing and a talented cast “Knives Out” manages to put a creative twist on the murder mystery genre while avoiding some of the common pitfalls that movies in this genre face.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Yume Igarashi

At first glance, “Knives Out” seems to be a classic murder mystery. The setup for the film is a simple one, like that of an Agatha Christie novel, starting with a crime and asking the question “who did it?” It even features a smooth and sophisticated private investigator in the form of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who, despite his over the top southern accent, is clearly meant as an allusion to more traditional figures like Hercule Poirot. However, as the movie progresses, it becomes clear to audiences that “Knives Out” is a far cry from the traditional mystery. Director and writer Rian Johnson is able to brilliantly restructure the now quite clichéd formula into something new and exciting, with interesting characters and relevant, yet surprisingly political, themes.

The movie opens as almost all mysteries do: with a corpse. Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the nurse and caretaker of mystery writer Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer), finds him dead with his neck slit the night after a birthday party with his family at his country mansion. All signs point to it being a suicide, with the only suspicion coming from private investigator Blanc himself, who received an anonymous payment to investigate the death. When Blanc calls the Thrombys back to the house, we meet our cast of suspects, and the film kicks off. But “Knives Out” does not adhere to the structure of the murder mystery for long.

A frequent weakness of the mystery genre is characterization, specifically in that it is difficult to develop the large cast of suspicious personalities that such stories often feature. To use the example of Christie again, many of her novels use basic character tropes to fill out her plots and keep them complex enough to remain mysterious. Contrasting with this, Johnson’s well defined and three-dimensional character writing is one of the best parts of “Knives Out.” In particular, Thromby’s daughter, Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) are both very fleshed out, as is their son, Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), and Linda Drysdale’s sister, Walter Thromby (Michael Shannon). At first, the Drysdales seem like a grab bag of elitist archetypes: Linda as a calculating business woman, Ransom as an entitled trust fund kid, and Walter as a man coasting off his father’s success. But Johnson is able to make them even more. Linda, for instance, is greatly humanized by her genuinely kind relationship with her father, while Walter’s weakness is highlighted through his father’s dislike and seeming annoyance toward him. Ransom isn’t even in the first half of the movie, but he quickly outgrows the playboy stereotype when he is shown to be likeable and surprisingly competent. The film is able to do this is all in spite of each actor getting relatively little focus, with the run time being split between the large number of big names on the screen.

While some of this can undoubtedly be credited to the talented ensemble cast, it is also a sign of Johnson’s skill as a writer and stems from his willingness to diverge from the standard formula of a mystery plot. The story isn’t seen through the eyes of Blanc, the suave investigator, as it would be in any other detective drama, but instead through those of Cabrera and to a lesser extent, the Thrombys, whose viewpoints we dip into from time to time to better explain the narrative. By setting up the film in this way, it's much easier to explore the characters, putting the viewer in the story instead of in the role of a snooping outsider. A good example of this is Richard who, almost from the minute he appears, is revealed to be cheating on his wife. This lets Johnson quickly outline him as a character, while keeping tensions high as Blanc, who is still driving the plot forward, remains oblivious.

Similarly, most of the movie seems much less preoccupied with being mysterious and much more with just being an enjoyable experience. This isn’t to say that “Knives Out” shows the audience everything. In fact, not far into its runtime many will find themselves wondering where the narrative can go. Despite all of this, the film remains just as high stakes as any complex detective movie, with each knew reveal serving to elevate the tension instead of alleviate it. It becomes clear to the audience that few of the characters care that Thromby is dead, and that his death only really serves to set the scene. With each layer of the plot peeled back, there is an escalation with more mysteries and more problems. Investigator Blanc summarizes the story best when he says, “I spoke in the car about the hole at the center of this donut […] but we must look a little closer. And when we do, we see that the donut hole has a hole in its center—it is not a donut hole at all but a smaller donut with its own hole, and our donut is not whole at all!”

“Knives Out” also differs from the average detective flick in that it is quite unabashedly political. Cabrera is the daughter of illegal immigrants, and throughout the movie she is constantly faced with the threat of deportation, with the Thrombys serving as a microcosm of American politics complete with Meg (Katherine Langford), a pot smoking liberal college student and Jacob (Jaeden Martell), who fills the modern archetype of the teenage alt-right internet troll. The Thrombys are Johnson’s picture of the classic American family at its most extreme and are completely self serving and entitled, as well as utterly ruthless whenever they feel like their way of life is being threatened (hence the title “Knives Out”). Though this thinly veiled allegory Johnson explores ideas like the frequent emptiness of tolerance (with the Thrombys only standing by Cabrera and her family until it’s easier not to) or the questionable legitimacy of any claim to America or being American.

The retooling and restructuring of traditional mystery elements in “Knives Out” helps it feel like a classic crime thriller while avoiding the banality pervasive in such films. Johnson’s layered, convoluted plot is sure to keep any fan of the genre happy while his insertion of political themes at the very least keeps the film from feeling vapid and empty, as too many films with similarly over-the-top plots do. Though “Knives Out” is surprisingly lacking in mystery for a film of its genre, its great writing and well developed characters make it as satisfying as any detective film, as well as an all around entertaining movie.