Harlan Thrombey, the famous mystery writer behind Blood Like Wine Publishing, has been found with his throat slit in an apparent suicide. The night preceding, he had his family over to celebrate his birthday. They drank martinis, he blew out candles, the family rolled through their usual disagreements, and then the patriarch went to bed. The next morning, his maid discovered his body and a puddle of blood soaking through a shag rug.
Of course, things aren’t all as they seem. The family is called in for follow-up questioning at the manor. They prickle at the two policemen, but it’s the stranger in the back of the room, playing a single piano key when the questioning gets off track, that really sets them on edge.
This is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator who was recently profiled in The New Yorker as the “Last of the Gentleman Sleuths.” Some of the family read the article, others pretended to, others confess to having seen a tweet. His reputation precedes him.
Harlan’s children are what you would expect in a family raised rich and kept on their father’s payroll. There’s Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose real estate business began with a million-dollar loan from Harlan; Walt (Michael Shannon), in charge of the family’s publishing business but kept on a short leash; and Joni (Toni Collette), married in and then widowed, with a GOOP-esque lifestyle brand that relies on Harlan’s monthly check.
The grandchildren are no better. Meg (Katherine Langford) is seen as a leech, using her grandfather’s money to fund a liberal arts education that Linda derides as “crypto-Marxist deconstruction feminist poetry theory;” Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is constantly on his phone, trolling reddit and promoting white nationalism, considered an “alt-right troll dipshit” by Meg; and Ransom (Chris Evans, great, hot), called a “little shit” and the family’s “black sheep.”
As with any family, this one is a mess of opinions and resentments and lies, built up over decades. Any question Blanc or Elliott asks contains a potential minefield, and the actors have a field day with what’s given them: Michael Shannon is the perfect meek mix of cowering on the brink of an anger filling in for esteem; Toni Collette basks in the “all is love, but please ignore my grifting” ethos of her draped-in-pink flowy mien; and Jamie Lee Curtis is steely intimidating in her perfectly tailored jewel-toned business-wear. Chris Evans might be having the most fun, though, as the looked-down-upon grandson. After his gleeful recitation of “eat shit, eat shit, definitely eat shit,” I’m tempted to retire the phrase.
On the outside of all of this is Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who the family only sort of see. She wasn’t invited to the funeral, even though they all claim to have wanted her there. Marta is considerate and quiet, but more importantly, she can’t lie without puking. Blanc is aware of this, and is able to use it to suss out the family’s secrets: yes, Linda’s husband, Richard, was having an affair; yes, Harlan planned on cutting off Joni; yes, Harlan fired Walt from his position at the publishing firm. Of course, everything the family had told him up to that point had only been a shade of the truth.
Except, there’s one truth she’s been coached not to tell. The truth of what actually happened.
For those who want a spoiler warning, here is your spoiler warning.
There are various formulas for this kind of movie that boil down to: whodunit versus howdunit. Knives Out presents itself as the former, but halfway through, reveals itself as the latter, when we find out that Harlan did, in fact, commit suicide, but only as a gesture toward protecting Marta after she accidentally switches her medical vials and overdoses him with morphine.
Walt told the detectives that Harlan always came up with his plots fully formed, that for him, that was the easiest part. After Harlan realizes that Marta has accidentally overdosed him—given him 100 milligrams, versus the suggested three—you can see these cogs turning in his brain. He asks her questions about how long it would be before the overdose began to take effect, how long an ambulance might take to reach a remote country manor such as theirs, and what the implications might be on the person who overdoses. Within a minute, he has it sorted, and when Marta can’t find the antidote in her bag, he knows that letting it play out without his intervention would result in Marta’s family probably being deported.
He has a plan. He tells Marta what to do—when to leave, how to return, the trellis to climb—all so no one could possibly suspect her involvement. It’s a complicated wink at plotting, like he’s setting up a game of chess and knows exactly which pieces will move where. And he’s right, for the most part, even if he doesn’t fully understand exactly what’s happened. Slitting his own throat is just the period at the end of the sentence, his own way of making sure Marta follows through.
After the policeman and gentleman detective have left the family, Walt finds Joni in an upstairs bedroom. She’s sorting through a stack of pink notecards, letters to her from Harlan. She says that she was just thinking about their father’s games. “This all feels like one. it feels like something he’d write, not do. I keep waiting for a big reveal, where it all makes sense. How nice would that be?”
She’s right, but not in the way she hopes. He narrativized his own death.
Knives Out joins the tradition of housebound murder mysteries, including but not limited to the classic caper, Clue, Murder by Death (starring a deranged Truman Capote, sticking his tongue out of holes in the wall), and Gosford Park. It’s also a genre that’s been played with in individual episodes of shows like Pretty Little Liars (when they’re stuck in the dollhouse! I mean: perfect), Los Espookys (HBO, Julio Torres, phenomenal), and, of course, Murder, She Wrote. During his press tour, Rian Johnson cited other movies he referenced during writing, including The Last of Sheila, a murder mystery on a yacht where a group of Hollywood players try to out each others’ secrets while solving a year-old murder, and Evil Under the Sun, an Agatha Christie adaptation set on an island resort, with Hercule Poirot surrounded by self-involved rich people trying to use each other in various ways.
This, in my opinion, is a near perfect genre. Each element is pleasurable on its own—the larger-than-life characters, the set design of a rich person’s home, the red herrings, the conflicts between upstairs and downstairs. There’s often a meta element as well, a mystery writer or actress starring in a murder mystery movie or an editor working on a similar-sounding project. Pulling all of these together creates an electricity that carries through each scene. Beyond that, there’s a comforting frisson in implicating the audience and encouraging them to guess which of the rich dummies dunit.
It makes sense that Rian Johnson chose this genre as the follow-up to his (controversial) turn in the Star Wars universe. With his previous films, he’s shown how much fun he can have playing within a well-known form, such as neo-noir (Brick), and here all of the pieces are laid out, like a recipe of sorts. He clearly had fun leaning into the form. Each character could demand their own universe (which he humored through the website for Blood Like Wine Publishing and pop-ups for Joni’s wellness brand, Flam) and each come off as potentially guilty and definitely money-hungry. The manor is filled with arcane objects, difficult games, and nods to Harlan Thrombey’s books, all eagerly pointed out by one of the policemen, who’s an avid fan: the statues in the forest out back, all from his “menagerie tragedy series,” a trick hall window from A Kill For All Seasons.
Just like the Thrombey manor, the genre is a container for so much good and so much conflict. It’s a genre begging to be repurposed, refreshed, and brought into the 21st century, in the same vein as Knives Out. I don’t mean that I want new adaptations (although I want those too, so long as they’re not glossy and overdone); I mean, I want new. New murderers, new suspects, new red herrings, new victims. Give me brand new whodunits, let me go in blind, and then use those stories to turn a mirror on our times. I really don’t think I’m asking for too much here.
Let’s go back further.
Let’s go back to interwar England and the “Detection Club,” a club of mystery writers that included Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. The club was a way for them to socialize and challenge each other. The members often participated in collaborations. Occasionally, they played in “mystery games,” published in newspapers that had a cash prize. They had the resources, they might as well use them. This was the era that saw detective fiction, previously confined to short stories, grow into the realm of novels.
The Club came up with a list of 10 rules its members had to follow, rules that they thought helped make “good” detective fiction. Some of the rules are outdated (i.e. “No chinamen must figure in the story”), but for the most part, these are rules still being followed today, rules that Knives Out doesn’t break. The criminal must have been mentioned early in the story, no more than one secret passageway is allowed, the detective can’t keep clues secret from the reader, the “stupid friend of the detective” (their words!) can’t conceal any of his thoughts and must be slightly less smart than most readers, and so on. Basically: play fair and keep the reader in the loop.
In his book, The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards points out that detective stories offered a level of pleasure and escapism during a time of increasing turbulence––first the world war tore through their social mores, then a decade on, the ‘20s crashed into the depressive ‘30s. These stories provided readers both with enjoyable escapes and the satisfaction of a plot with all of its loose ends tied up.
I don’t want to draw too fine a parallel between that time and our current time, but also, I don’t not want to draw that parallel.
So, Christie created Hercule Poirot, an eccentric man with a Belgian accent and a tendency toward non sequiturs, and Sayers created Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur detective with both genius and a lord’s bank account. Both are “gentleman sleuths” in the same mold as Benoit Blanc. Johnson has referenced adaptations of Christie’s novels as inspiration, but I’d argue that the lineage of Knives Out can be more directly tied to the novels of Christie and Sayers, the rules they created within their club, and the fun they had within those bounds.
Blanc is a character as big as, if not bigger than, the family he’s investigating. He seems to relish in the solving of the mystery as much as he might at the prospect of having solved it. He’s prone to soliloquies, such as the one he gives in Marta’s car, about how the case has been a strange one from the start, “A case with a hole in the middle. A donut.” He compares his detective method to a Thomas Pynchon title he’s never read, Gravity’s Rainbow, because he follows the arc of the story.
Even his presence in the film is a part of the overall mystery—he received an enveloped filled with cash, telling him to solve the murder of Harlan Thrombey. He doesn’t know who hired him, but that envelope indicates a crime the police aren’t investigating, and he’s keen on solving it.
The idea of a “gentleman sleuth” might be outdated, but the character is still a calming one. With every detective, there comes a solution, and solutions feel so nice right now because they are so few and far between. Christie and Sayers were writing within a post-war world that felt fractious and scary; Johnson is writing within a world that seems indefinitely at war and terribly fractious and like each new morning brings with it new and terrifying revelations and one more ice cap melted into the ocean.
Perhaps what I’m saying is, the detective novel is the perfect genre for our times and I hope that this is the beginning of many more entries within it, becausewhile Knives Out succeeds in spades within the container of “murder mystery,” it fails when it tries to say (or not say) something about the year 2019.
The politics of Knives Out are tricky. In one corner, you have the Thrombeys, a rich, white family with every advantage and resource available to them. The Thrombeys believe America is for “Americans” and quote Hamilton to show that they “get it.” In the other corner, you have Marta, a first-generation immigrant with an undocumented mother. In many ways, Marta embodies the trope of the “perfect immigrant.” She’s a great nurse and a good friend to Harlan; she’s present in every way his family isn’t. She doesn’t expect hand-outs. I mean, she can’t even lie without puking! She’s pure in a way the Thrombey family isn’t.
As Monica Castillo wrote for The New York Times, even though Johnson is acknowledging how corrupt and gross the Thrombeys are, many of the jokes about their obliviousness, like their blithe ignorance of which country Marta is actually from, turns a very real and present dynamic for any immigrant into a line played for laughs. An idea I often return to is how, often, if you’re making jokes about racist people by repeating things those racist people say, you’re still being racist. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to dunk on them, you’re still giving new life to their bigoted language.
The family is rich, sure, so their politics are assumed to be closer to the reddit-trolling grandchild than to ours, but Johnson nods at this and then glides on, rather than sinking into how complicated and hard and bad these politics are. In Knives Out, their bad politics are played as a quirk, another way for us, the audience, to roll our eyes at them, but their ultimate downfall has nothing to do with their politics and everything to do with the all-corrupting power of money. On the other side of all of it, they’re not going to change their mind about who America is truly for. If anything, they’ll burrow deeper into their beliefs. Without the safety of their money, at least they’ll still have the safety of their privilege.
I don’t have an easy answer here. I understand why Johnson wrote Marta and I understand a lot of the decisions he made with the family’s politics, but I also wish he’d done a bit more work to complicate the story and challenge the characters. As is, this particular conflict feels like a half-hearted wink. Sure, we know the world is fucked up and bad right now, but that’s over there and right now we’re over here, so let’s not worry too much about it, right?
Knives Out make the politics of 2019 feel simple and circumstantial in ways that they aren’t in real life. It’s never easy, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for more mess, more reality, more implication. I don’t want the magnifying glass to singe us; I want it to burn.
All right. Let’s do it. Let’s discuss Chris Evans.
More specifically, let’s discuss Chris Evans in that sweater. Ransom. Hugh Ransom Drysdale. Hugh Ransom Drysdale in that sweater with the little ratty details along the collar. The sweater is divine and Evans is doing exactly what he should be doing in any movie here: being a complete asshole and reveling in that assholery. Every line delivery is steeped in the wink of it, the “I know it’s hot of me to accuse my grandfather of being insane, even if you can only hear my bellow muffled and through a wall.” When he rolls and his eyes and mouths “wow?” The power!
More specifically, though, Evans manages to pull off the tricky balance beam act of the part. He’s instantly the most suspicious, but as soon as he comes onscreen, you want to see more of him, and then when he rescues Marta from the amoeba-like flailing of his family and takes her out for beer and chowder, you want to like him, want to love that he’s offering his assistance and believe in his altruism.
Somehow, it’s believable that he could do it and it’s believable that he’d want to protect the woman who now controls his family’s money. It’s believable that he picked up some tricks while working as a research assistant for his grandfather and believable that he understands that Marta beating Harlan at Go more than he beats Harlan at Go means something.
Also? It’s believable that, as Harlan said to Marta in his office, minutes before his fatal overdose, Harlan sees a lot of Ransom in himself, “playing life like a game without consequences,” and that, he’s sure, Ransom wouldn’t know the difference between a real knife and a prop knife.
Which is what happens after Ransom confesses to swapping the drugs in Marta’s bag. He wanted to kill his grandfather and he wanted Marta to be accused, but when Harlan committed suicide, his plans went south. He sent Blanc the anonymous envelope full of cash and he offered to help Marta so he could undermine her.
When he realizes that the game is up, he decides, “in for a penny, in for a pound” and grabs at one of the knives from the insta-classic knife-halo-throne, but the knife is fake. It collapses. Marta survives. Ransom is arrested, puke all over his face and soaking into his sweater, beat at a game he thought he’d had in hand.
This is what it comes down to:
Here, now, in 2020, at the beginning of a new decade, perhaps this form of the detective novel is the logical conclusion. The call is coming from inside the house; your cousin committed the murder; no one’s safe. Things aren’t easy or okay and answers are close to impossible to find.
The least we’re owed is as many films as Hollywood can crank out about shitty white men being sent away to jail.