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‘Knives Out’ is a whodunit crafted for and by the modern age

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“Knives Out” shows that productions based on fun and original screenplays still have a place in the cinematic landscape.
“Knives Out” shows that productions based on fun and original screenplays still have a place in the cinematic landscape.

Writer-director Rian Johnson breathes life back into the “whodunit” with “Knives Out,” a modern-day murder mystery set in a creaky New England mansion that is bolstered by entertaining gags, inspired performances and Chris Evans wearing the cable knit sweater of the decade.

If you think your family has problems come holiday season, just get a load of the Thrombeys. The family is a true WASP nest of co-dependents, all reliant on patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and the wealth he has amassed as — what else — a crime novelist. For his 85th birthday, Harlan has invited his extended family to the Thrombey manor, conveniently nestled far away from any potential witnesses to a crime. What transpires is a twisty and suspenseful whodunit crafted for and by the modern age.

When Harlan unexpectedly shuffles off his mortal coil on the night of his 85th birthday, leaving his fortune behind, the family becomes embroiled in suspicion and desperation. But is it desperation for the truth, or for money? Oh, I’ve said too much already! In a blowout of near-Shakespearean proportions, the family is at each other’s throats. With ingenuous caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) and obtrusive private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), Johnson sets the story in motion. 

Without revealing their characters’ dispositions or motivations, stand-out performances are those of Toni Colette, Michael Shannon and Chris Evans, all of whom play assorted members of the Thrombey family. (One of them plays an Instagram influencer, but I won’t tell you who!) As the previously-mentioned cable knit sweater suggests, “Knives Out” also boasts possibly the best costume design of the year — all of the Thrombeys look resplendent in their fitted coats, lavish scarves and leather boots. In addition, the set design of “Knives Out” is eye-catching and well-tailored itself, with the cinematography and editing excellently capturing the Thrombey mansion in all of its eclectic, mahogany glory. 

At the crux of “Knives Out” is the question: “Money and family: how far would you go for either?” Complicating the story is the modern sociopolitical angst that informs many of the characters’ actions and backgrounds. Marta, Harlan’s well-meaning nurse, is an immigrant from Latin America, and the Thrombeys are a privileged and ignorant upper-class family who represent the hegemonic powers-that-be — I bet you can see where this is going. The story’s conflict is framed around this politicized struggle, and many jokes and jabs take advantage of the current political climate. 

Johnson’s penchant for imbuing his stories with political commentary has gotten him heat before. In fact, the backlash from “The Last Jedi” may have directly inspired a minor “Knives Out” character, an unabashed alt-right troll. Unfortunately, while the politics of “Knives Out” clearly has thematic consequence, it at times feels leaden and misplaced, with Johnson failing to be as sophisticated as he meant to be. One of the characters was even given “a small loan of a million dollars” to start their business, a now-overused reference to Trump. Regardless, Johnson’s writing is suspenseful and clear— it’s unlikely you’ll walk out of the theater with any unresolved questions.

“Knives Out” has its eyeroll-worthy moments, for sure. Certain characters have wasted potential, and Daniel Craig is intent on recycling a ridiculous Southern accent that he probably picked up from his turn in “Logan Lucky.” It’s a clear reference to the classic whodunit trope — think Hercule Poirot’s Belgian lilt — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t grimace every time he spoke. And while there aren’t any logical jumps, per se, Johnson isn’t afraid of throwing reason to the wind in favor of entertainment. 

As many have written, the movie market of today is oversaturated with franchises and brand associations. Nowadays, what seems to get people into theater seats (or even just to their living room couch) is franchise and, in a broader sense, comfort. Brands like Marvel and Pixar are well-established, and general audiences enjoy the familiarity. However, in the wake of events like  Disney’s recent acquisition of 21st Century Fox — which gives the company an estimated 35% share of the film industry market. Slowly, by gradually swallowing Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and now Fox Studios, Disney has become a colossal entertainment machine. 

The unfortunate thing is that Disney seems to have perfected a formula for making family-friendly content (and therefore money). Even with the acquisition of the subsidiary Fox Searchlight, an independent project studio, will Disney prioritize risky and niche films over its juggernaut franchises? Is the studio responsible for bringing us “Maleficent II,” a sequel to a remake of “Sleeping Beauty,” really concerned with pushing the boundaries of the medium, or only recycling its greatest hits? Furthermore, how will Disney’s dominance shape the rest of the film landscape?

“Knives Out,” however, shows that productions based on fun and original screenplays still have a place in the cinematic landscape, with the opening-night numbers far surpassing industry predictions. “Knives Out” is a refreshing diversion from the industry pickings of today and, as an added layer, a mirror reflecting the pitfalls of modern society. Johnson skillfully reworks the “whodunit,” popularized by novelist Agatha Christie, updating the genre for modern audiences to enjoy. With sharp-witted humor, a suspenseful script and an enjoyable number of crass insults, this murder mystery seems to have pulled off a criminal heist at the box office.

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