Note: The following review avoids major spoilers, but it does discuss characters and plot elements. For those who haven’t seen it, I’d recommend going into this film knowing as little as possible.
The structure of the whodunnit is among the most rigid in the annals of literature. A crime – most habitually a murder – is committed, and the detectives are called to the scene. We meet the suspects, each with their own quirks and foibles, and the mystery is afoot. Some clues glitter the path, a few red herrings maintain the tension, at least one final curveball and the perp is unmasked. Explanations are given, plaudits awarded, final credits rolled.
This formula has stuck with us since our childhoods, be it through Nate the Great paperbacks or Scooby-Doo reruns. We learned deductive reasoning from Nancy Drew and observation skills from Frank and Joe Hardy. As time passed, we fell in with the works of Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, binge-watched Veronica Mars, and even guiltily enjoyed the occasional CSI: Miami.
The formula is so tested and worn that it’s spawned a critical tagline (“The butler did it!”) and a genre inversion (the “howcatchem”), yet it still holds up. No matter how many times we read, watch, or even listen to the story play out, a well-told whodunnit can be as compelling as any other genre story, be it mystery or otherwise.
Rian Johnson understands his audience’s affection for whodunnits, and clearly has a strong love of them himself. Knives Out, his latest writing/directing effort, is a veritable celebration of murder mysteries, dating back to their golden age origins. Deftly plotted and wittily scripted, it distills the genre to its barest and most compelling essentials, while simultaneously building something wholly clever and original upon the base. In doing so, it excels as one of the most entertaining and satisfying films of the year.
The setup is doubtlessly familiar to anyone familiar with crime novels – a rich family patriarch named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has been murdered in his own home, and his family is filled with suspects. Two local detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are called to the scene, as is a wildcard freelancer named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, spouting one-liners in a deliriously loopy Southern accent). As interrogations begin, we learn that the Thrombey family, though distraught, runs hot and cold with narcissistic blood. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) are money-hungry; their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is a deadbeat. Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) and his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) were after Harlan’s business, and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) uses her work as a lifestyle guru to cover for her own shortcomings. Rounding out the cast are two politically-obsessed teenagers – leftist snowflake Meg (Katherine Langford) and alt-right racist Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Put all together, there’s not an angel in the bunch.
That is, except one. Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and caretaker, has a conscience that most of the Thrombeys lack. She’s unselfish and honest, to the comical point that telling any lie causes her to vomit. Blanc finds a respect for her that he grants no other member of the household, and she becomes something of an audience surrogate, as the film’s most honest and sympathetic character.
Knives Out sets up Marta, along with all these other characters, in typical whodunnit fashion – yet it doesn’t play by the rules. Restrictive as the genre boundaries may seem, Johnson throws a wrench in the works about halfway through the film, forcing us to immediately recalibrate our perceptions. Are we watching a typical murder mystery (as the film continues to insist, even after the second-act reveal) or is it something more? Johnson is using new crayons, yet he’s still coloring within the lines.
It’s at this point that mystery lovers begin to question what the real intent is behind Knives Out. Much ado is made of the Thrombey family – rich, white, upper-class – and their social contrast with Marta. A mealtime argument about politics in 2019 doesn’t much further the story, but it highlights the social stratifications within the family, not too far from those of any American family these days. (Fitting that this film should see release over Thanksgiving weekend, a time when families gather across the country and butt heads over differing opinions.) The Thrombeys are a colorful bunch, but the more we see ourselves in them, the more obvious their flaws become.
In a sense, the family drama and political rhetoric functions as misdirection within misdirection. To its bones, Knives Out is a whodunit, complete with clues, logic, and a third-act twist. The film’s skillful use of misleads even run to its title, which refers not only to Harlan’s collection of priceless antique blades, but to the expression Blanc uses to describe his vulturous relatives. As a mystery novelist himself, Harlan appreciates the value of a key turn of phrase – or he would, if someone hadn’t drawn the knives out for him.
Knives Out is currently playing in theaters.