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Knives Out and the strange comfort of an optimistic murder mystery
Rian Johnson's latest feature film, Knives Out, has been called a lot of things. It's funny. It's irreverent. It's political. It features America's Ass topped with a perfectly distressed cable knit sweater.
It is all of these things and more — because, despite the fact that the entire film centers around a family so cutthroat and dishonest that any one of them is equally suspected in the murder of the family patriarch, it still remains, at its core, sincerely optimistic.
I would not go so far as to say that the film is perfect. Other critics have pointed out that the political perspective, though it attempts to critique the privileged white lives of upper-class Americans — liberal and conservative alike — does so from a position of privilege itself. Its political commentary is sometimes moderately grating even as it manages to, at other times, bite in just the right way. Despite its occasional misses, however, Knives Out still manages to slice open the facade of the rich New England liberal moderate and shine a light on the hypocrisy and malice which lies just beneath the surface, unearthed when that privilege is threatened or damaged. It does so by telling its story through the eyes of the only truly good person in the entire ensemble.
Spoilers for the plot of Knives Out within.
One part Clue, one part cozy Agatha Christie novel, Knives Out manages to subvert its progenitors with a series of choices. First, it's a whodunnit in which the who that dunnit is not mysterious for long — at least to the audience. We know within the first act of the film that Harlon Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) died due to a series of unfortunate events, as his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), distracted by their conversation, accidentally injects him with a lethal dose of morphine. Harlon, unwilling to allow his caretaker and friend to be blamed for his death, offers up a plan to conceal her mistake and takes his own life before the drugs in his system are able to accomplish that on their own.
With the events of Harlon's death unveiled from the jump, the film becomes a humorous game of cat and mouse wherein Marta attempts to keep herself free of suspicion while assisting the police and the private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who was hired to solve the case. As the story progresses, you get to know the players in the Thrombey family game and realize that despite how any of them may seem on the surface, each one is hiding a vindictive, selfish, or otherwise contemptible personality just underneath their polite veneer. Some, like 16-year-old Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher), the alt-right internet troll (or "literal Nazi" as he is described) wear their despicable nature right on top. Others, like Jacob's cousin Meg (Katherine Langford), bury it deep down under layers of performative progressivism buoyed by a life of safety and the security of wealth. Sometimes it's the subtleties of a family knowing that Marta is an immigrant but being unable to recall which country she is from. Other times it's that same family turning on her and her mother the moment she threatens the very safety and security they all pretended not to need only days before. No one comes out smelling like a rose.
No one, that is, except Marta.
In addition to framing device and audience point of view, Marta's role in the story of Harlon Thrombey's untimely demise is also as the only truly good person in a cast of equally villainous, though technically innocent, suspects. Marta was a friend to Harlon. She was kind to the entire family no matter how she was treated. Marta never wanted to lie but did it to protect her family. She didn't want Harlon's money despite what it would mean for her and her mother and sister because, unlike Harlon's entire family, she did not feel she deserved what she did not earn. Marta cared, deeply, and the movie rewarded her for it.
Marta, as it turned out, never caused Harlon's death, despite the best efforts of the film's real villain. She was good at her job, she cared for her patients, she cared for her friends, and when the choice came down to her friend or her freedom, she chose her friend. When she could continue lying or dispel her guilt with the truth, she chose the truth. And when she could have left questions unanswered, she chose to hand over a piece of evidence she thought would prove her guilt — thus, ironically, proving her innocence.
Knives Out does a number of fascinating things with its plot and its characters. It turns a whodunnit on its head, revealing the truth of the events of Harlon's death so early in the film that what was supposed to be a murder mystery is, for the majority of the story, neither a murder nor a mystery. But it's what it does with its conclusion that is perhaps the most interesting and the most refreshing. Had, for example, Agatha Christie been the one telling this tale, there would be no Marta, no kindhearted girl at the center of the story who defeats her foes with truth and justice. There would be only a series of unlikeable, wealthy white people, each with a terrible secret and a distasteful nature, ultimately undone by the savvy detective protagonist.
Instead, Johnson crafts a tale with a twist worthy of Christie and Doyle and Chandler and all those who came before, but with a message rarely seen in the world of death and detectives: truth wins, evil is defeated, and no matter how many terrible, vile people you may meet, there are at least a few who are truly good and truly kind.
In fact, Knives Out is just the latest of Johnson's films to take on an optimistic viewpoint even while telling a story set in a sad or cruel world. Nearly every film — with the exception of Brick, I suppose — includes a protagonist who is, at their core, a good and kind person just trying to make sense of a world and a life that has dealt them a raw deal. Even Looper, one of his bleakest stories, ends with hope. It's a bittersweet hope, certainly, as is any story that ends with loss or sacrifice, but it's a hope for a better tomorrow. These days, when the world seems divided and cruel and every headline is soaked in blood or despair or contempt or crime, it is good to see a film that reminds us there are good people out there, just doing their best.