Knives Out: Subvervise or Exploitative of the Mystery Genre?
Warning: Spoilers ahead
Ever since the pandemic recently grabbed a hold of our lives, I have been voraciously perusing the catalogues of Hulu, iTunes and Netflix to occupy some extra time at home. While I’ve had fun rewatching an endless amount of sitcoms, I was tempted by a recent film that I’ve been waiting to review — “Knives Out.”
Released in the fall of 2019, “Knives Out” is a murder-mystery that received a lot of public attention when it came out in theatres. With a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a cast list that boasts the likes of Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans, critics and viewers alike have vehemently christened this movie as one of the best films to come out of 2019. Now that iTunes has started releasing new films early in light of viewers’ pivot from theater seats to their own couches, I finally had the chance to review this movie that has been touted for its subversion of the American mystery genre.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, I found the film to be mediocre at best and slightly disappointing given the sweeping amount of praise for it online. While initially intriguing and somewhat comedic, the film ultimately did not live up to its golden status, largely due to the same quality that many viewers praised it for — its supposed “subversion” of the American mystery genre.
While the story is heavily interlaced with satire that works to parody and poke fun at some of the more ridiculous tropes of classic American mystery films, the movie, in truth, does not do anything extraordinary nor is it as subversive as many have claimed.
“Knives Out” begins with Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy author of mystery novels, holding a huge family gathering for his 85th birthday. That night, however, he is found dead in his bed chambers with a slit throat. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is then anonymously called in to investigate his death.
The “murder” in question, however, is not entirely a mystery, since the circumstances surounding Thrombey’s death are revealed within the first half hour of the film. Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s reserved and kind-hearted caretaker, accidentally switches the vials for Harlan’s daily medication and ends up poisoning him. With only 10 minutes left to live, Harlan, being the genius novelist that he is, details an elaborate plan to ensure that Marta is not convicted for this accidental murder. With an undocumented mother who could be deported for the slightest reason, Harlan tasks Marta with hiding the evidence so as not to implicate the rest of her family.
Despite this reveal in the beginning, the film is not solely about Marta’s attempt to hide the real cause of Thrombey’s death. The story is more centered around the dynamics of the obnoxious family that Harlan leaves behind, an entire clan of entitled Thrombeys who have been leeching off of Harlan’s wealth for years.
Thus, the turning point in the film comes when Harlan’s will is read. During the meeting, the Thrombeys, eager to hear in what ways they will be compensated, await the verdict; surprisingly, Harlan gives all of his property, fortune and anything else tied to his name to Marta. Instantly, the once semi-cordial Thrombeys become ravenous with rage as they descend on Marta, confused as to why the patriarch of their family would cut them off so viciously. The once liberal family members begin to turn on Marta when presented with the possibility of having “their” wealth snatched away from them.
It sounds interesting, right? It was and yet the political turn that the movie takes feels incongruous with the mystery that is initially set up. What we have here is a very commendable exposition of American contentions against immigration and second-generation immigrants, specifically within the elite, white upper-class. The film works to expertly highlight the hypocrisy of a “silver spoon” family who has not worked for the wealth that they all comfortably indulge in. Juxtaposed against the actions of the selfless and hardworking Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s death serves the purpose of revealing the true character behind the Thrombey’s who, for all their posture and feigned civility, treat Marta as second-class despite being an American-born citizen just like themselves.
One of my favorite scenes within the film happens to be when Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s grandchild, passionately argues that the Thrombey estate is their birthright and ancestral home. At this, Beniot Blanc guffaws, exclaiming that the house was actually bought from a Pakistani real estate billionaire and has no familial ties to the Thrombeys whatsoever. The ending scene of the defeated Thrombey clan sternly looking up to a triumphant but equally humble Marta, standing over them on the balcony of what is now her mansion while “Sweet Virginia by the Rolling Stones plays out, is such a satisfying and powerful way of displaying this heated dynamic.
That being said, the politicization of the mystery genre was something I wasn’t expecting, and something I believe was somewhat forced onto the narrative.
The movie, from my perspective, can barely even be considered a mystery because it does the genre an injustice. Simply having the mystery solved in the beginning is not subversive of the genre and has been done before, albeit far better than in this film. This structure, where the story is not about how the murder came about or who the murderer is, but how the detective ends up solving the case even further, is commonly known as the “inverted detective story” in crime/murder-mystery narratives. If you have ever watched “Law & Order” or “Criminal Minds,” you too are probably familiar with this kind of setup.
Even the detective who we are supposed to follow, who is initially portrayed as being the best in his field, is treated as a side-prop, and ultimately, he has no idea what’s going on until the end, where he somehow magically pieces everything together. Although this could’ve just been some cheeky satire on the part of the director, it ultimately falls apart towards the end as this satire of the all-knowing detective is shattered by the fact that he ends up solving the mystery, further enabling the narrative trope of the all-knowing detective.
So if the film’s subversiveness doesn’t come from its structure, then perhaps people are raving over this film’s subversiveness because of the way it combines politics and mystery, but even here it balances both poorly. Rather than subvert, director Rian Johnson simply capitalizes on the mystery element of the film to lay the groundwork for his slightly controversial themes that tackle American liberal and conservative views on immigration. Although I highly enjoyed the way that Johnson explicates these contentious issues, the political aspect infringes on the mystery and ultimately makes for a lousy story.
In the end, for instance, we find out that it is Ransom who set everything into motion and purposefully switched the vials of medicine before Marta even touched them. Having found out, the night of the party, that Harlan was leaving all his assets to Marta and Marta only, Ransom, noted as being as gifted at crafting stories as Harlan, weaves his own plan to ensure that Marta never receives the inheritance via the slayer rule, a law that prevents someone from inheriting anything from a person they have murdered.
While this ending may have satisfied some, it was painstakingly foreshadowed in the beginning. It is noted, for example, that Harlan’s dogs bark at people they do not like. Ransom’s first appearance in the film involves him walking out of an expensive car to a pack of viciously barking dogs. When the night of Harlan’s death is recounted, one of the witnesses notes that they heard barking.
Even as the will is being read later in the film, Ransom is smirking, something that seems odd considering he is portrayed as a contemptible, pompous person who is especially dependent on Harlan’s fortune. While the rest of the Thrombeys are in an uproar about the news of Marta’s inheritance, he continues to smile and laugh, despite the news that he, along with his family, will not be receiving any of the inheritance. Although I initially wrote it off as Ransom enjoyably soaking in the frustration of his willfully ignorant, self-serving family members, his character was continuously promoted as the black sheep of the family who is fully aware of his entitlement and will proudly stop at nothing to take back what he believes is his. Marta later runs away as the family demands she give them back the inheritance, and guess who is there to save her? Ransom.
Even casting Chris Evans, of all people, just coming off of his success as Captain America in the Avengers franchise, as the villain of the story makes his character reveal more obvious. What better way to trick viewers than to have a known hero play the villain. Perhaps the director thought this move would be so obvious that viewers would dismiss the possibility altogether. And while there are some very talented and well-known actors within this film, making Chris Evans — who has played the hero one time too many — a villain was just a spoiler in and of itself. Even in posters for the film, massive images of Chris Evans are displayed at the very top, alongside Marta and detective Benoit, while the rest of the family are presented far smaller on the bottom.
I think the public’s love for this movie stems from the political drama that occurs, not the mystery itself. And while this movie’s deeply layered background drama is a triumph, the film was ultimately marketed as a mystery, and as a mystery, it fails on multiple accounts. There is nothing subversive about it. Instead, the director just made the background drama that usually foregrounds a mystery more pervasive and prevalent than the mystery itself. If this movie had strayed away from using elements of the mystery genre and stuck to being a drama, I would have enjoyed it exponentially more. But, ultimately, the mystery genre was exploited, and, as someone who likes mysteries, I was disappointed.