Knives Out (2019): A Whodunit for the Modern Era
By Kiersten Johnston
Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie get a modern, comical flair in Knives Out, a film which never takes itself too seriously, but always keeps you guessing. Set in a Victorian gothic-style mansion filled with murder mystery props and statues and paintings that seem to watch your every move. Suspenseful orchestra music and dim-lit rooms set the tone for the mysterious plot of the film. However, within the first ten minutes, we learn that this movie isn’t your classic whodunit, it is actually a very clever, entertaining film that (not so) subtly critiques certain ideologies and class structures embedded in American culture. One of the main social issues shown throughout the film is the current political administration’s attitudes toward immigrants, more specifically the treatment of Hispanic people in this country. Also, the film touches on class division and the perception of power by the 1%. As an article by Andrew Chow at Time magazine said, “By its end, Knives Out has unexpectedly revealed itself to be a razor-sharp parable of a prevailing attitude towards illegal immigrants in America—and one of the most incisive socio-political films released this year.” (Chow) The director, Rian Johnson highlights these social issues through quick-witted dialogue and brilliant literary design, but also with accusatory camera angles and smart cinematography.
Knives Out begins with the death of famed mystery writer and the patriarch of the Thrombey family, Harlan Thrombey who is played by Christopher Plummer. His death is ruled a suicide by the two investigators on the scene, but a private detective by the name of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who was hired by an anonymous source shows up to investigate any foul play or motive for murder. We are introduced to Harlan’s family which is played by a star-studded cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Don Johnson. Through a series of interviews, we learn that Harlan’s family all have secrets of their own and are all reliant on his fortune despite their claims of being “self-made” without his help. As the story unfolds any one of Harlan’s family members could have committed the crime, but our attention is taken away from the Thrombey’s and aimed toward Harlan’s innocent, loving caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana De Armas). Marta winds up being the unlikely star of the show as the film spins an intricate web of murder, intrigue, greed, and power. I would be doing a disservice to the film by giving away any more information about the storyline, but let’s just say things aren’t as they appear in this case. To quote the eccentric investigator Benoit Blanc, “It’s a weird case from the start. A case with a hole in the center. A doughnut.”
One way that director Rian Johnson brought attention to anti-immigration and discrimination toward Latinx people was by making Marta the lead role and by not subjecting her to typical Latina stereotypes. Author Andrew Chow at Time magazine explains just how actress Ana De Armas felt about her role as Marta in this interview, “I received a logline that said, ‘Caretaker, Latina, pretty,’ and then one scene of the script—and that really didn’t speak to me.” The article goes on to explain that, “Once she read the whole script, she was blown away. ‘It was a dream. These characters don’t exist,’ she said. ‘Especially in this type of setup: a wealthy family played by all of these big movie stars, and then you have a Latina—the last thing you would imagine is that the movie is about her.’” (Chow) As we can see, Johnson did a great job of casting someone who could truly understand the discrimination facing a Latina character working for a wealthy, white family. Another way that Johnson gave power to Marta’s character was by letting Ana De Armas have some fun with an ongoing joke throughout the film. The way she did this was by having each member of the family say a different South American country that they thought Marta was from (Chow). They all sound so sure of themselves when saying answers like “She’s from Uruguay” or Brazil, Ecuador, etc. This ongoing joke shows just how ignorant people can sound when assuming someone’s nationality instead of just asking.
Difference is quickly established amongst the family of recently deceased Harlan Thrombey. One of his grandsons is labeled a “Nazi Alt-Right Troll” while his granddaughter is an outspoken liberal. This family is dysfunctional and full of self-entitled snobs. No matter what side of the political spectrum they’re on, one thing that seems to tie them together is money. One way that the director sheds light on difference in the film is by sharp-tongued dialogue scenes that have the camera quick-cut between the different actors. For example, when we are first introduced to Harlan’s eldest grandson, Ransom, who is a spoiled trust fund bachelor played by Chris Evans, he instantly disrupts the mood of the scene. The camera quickly cuts from Ransom telling a member of his family to “eat shit” then shows their surprised, insulted faces. This transition allows us to see just how different Ransom is from the rest of the family. He is unafraid to confront them in person, rather than gossiping behind their backs. But, despite their differences, the family is usually seen grouped together in the many parlor-like rooms of the mansion. This is done via long shot scales that ensure all members of the family are in view of the camera and in focus. However, throughout these scenes, Ransom can be seen sulking in a corner of the room shrouded in shadows and visibly cut-off from the rest of the family.
Power is just as important as wealth in this family. Each member of the Thrombey family vies to be the center of attention and the most successful. They do this by establishing authority over those beneath them and by backstabbing and pointing blame on everyone else. Every character is guilty of flaunting and abusing their positions of power, but none do it as well as Ransom. He acts just how you’d imagine a wealthy playboy who has never worked a day in his life would. He calls the staff at Harlan’s mansion “The Help” and demands that they call him by his real name, which is Hugh. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin draws attention to the power differences between social classes by framing characters into the scene based on importance (IMDB). In many scenes we can see the powerful, outspoken members of the family in front, usually voicing their opinions about some political, familial differences. While in the back of the frame, stand “the help”. It isn’t until later in the movie that Marta becomes the protagonist of the film and we see more close-ups of her and following shots that reinforce this shift in power.
Discrimination is a central idea in Knives Out. As mentioned before, even though the Thrombeys consider Marta to be part of the family they still don’t know what country she is from. This quote from Linda Holmes at NPR dives a little deeper into this dynamic, “Marta is “the help” to many of the Thrombeys, and the family treats her with a sharply observed combination of affection, condescension and dismissal, provided she stays in what they consider her place.” (Holmes) The film does a great job of drawing attention to current events and political attitudes in the real world. This is showcased perfectly in a scene where the family is debating the anti-immigration policies of Donald Trump, they don’t directly say his name, but they make unmistakable references about him. During the debate, one of Harlan’s daughter-in-law says, “We are losing our culture. Every day thousands of Mexicans come into our country.” When she receives criticism for this comment she states, “Don’t make this a race thing. I would say the same thing if they were European immigrants.” Some members of the family go on to say that it is inhumane what is happening to children at the border, while other members blame the parents and say that immigration is okay if it is done legally. Meanwhile, Marta’s mother is an illegal immigrant. This fact will later be used to blackmail her by the self-proclaimed liberal granddaughter. Clearly, literary design is a tool used throughout the film to make social commentary about current social problems such as race, immigration, and inhumane conditions at border control facilities.
Even though Knives Out is a work of fiction, the attitudes displayed by some of its characters are very real. In a literary journal about the psychology behind immigration attitudes for Denison University, Nida Bikmen writes, “Often, supporters of restrictions refer to their own family history of immigration but stress that their ancestors came to the United States legally unlike some current immigrants.” (Bikmen) This tactic is used to make it seem like the person is for immigration when really they don’t understand just how complicated the process of obtaining citizenship is. It is interesting to see how both sides of the spectrum use similar arguments to support their claims. An example of this can be seen here: “In the United States, the phrase “nation of immigrants” is used to both promote and restrict immigration. Those who use the phrase to promote immigration point to the similarities between current and previous generations of immigrants, whereas those who use it to restrict immigration emphasize the differences between the two generations.” (Bikmen) This contradictory dynamic represents much of the feuding that we see within the Thrombey family.
Knives Out immerses you into a modern-age Clue-like world while still maintaining its vintage film feel. Details like camera angling, lighting, and framing all work together to portray the different power dynamics within the Thrombey family. While the literary design and cinematography, help tell the story of a Latina woman’s rise from a secondary character to the protagonist. Director Rian Johnson seamlessly worked complex themes and social commentary into a classic murder mystery film. Throughout the film, you may think that you know how it will end or who committed the crime, but you would be wrong. Knives Out forces you to go along for the ride and take a closer look not at just the characters and their motives, but at society itself. To Benoit Blanc, “This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet.”
Bikmen, Nida. “Still a Nation of Immigrants? Effects of Constructions of National History on Attitudes toward Immigrants.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, vol. 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 282–302. Ebsco Host, doi:10.1111/asap.12080.
Chow, Andrew R. “How Knives Out Became One of the Year’s Most Subversive Films.” Time, Time, 26 Nov. 2019, time.com/5739679/knives-out-rian-johnson-making-of/.
Holmes, Linda. “’Knives Out,’ A Classic Comic Mystery Of Uncommon Sharpness.” NPR, NPR, 27 Nov. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/11/27/782165138/knives-out-a-classic-comic-mystery-of-uncommon-sharpness.
“Knives Out.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 27 Nov. 2019, www.imdb.com/title/tt8946378/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt.