When I saw the preview for Knives Out, I remember thinking that it was a Clue remake. It seemed like another uninspired, big cast, cash grab in the same vein as Goosebumps or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. So I was a little surprised when I started hearing so much positive buzz circulating around it.
Curious, my wife and I went to the theater last night. Then we went to dinner and spent about an hour combing over every detail of what we’d just seen.
Knives Out is a classic parlor room mystery. It borrows heavily from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, as well as referencing games such as Clue and Mafia. It has every character and every trope from the genre that we’re all familiar with. There is an aristocratic family, a gentleman sleuth and a mansion, complete with trick walls.
But it also isn’t a classic parlor room mystery, at all.
The first half hour of Knives Out is a series of interviews with the family members of a beloved patriarch named Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer) who, as far as anyone thus far has been able to tell, killed himself a few nights previously. These interviews are a master class in creative editing, as the private detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) asks each of them to go over the details of the night in question, searching for motives and inconsistencies, the ticking of a large grandfather clock tying the scenes together even as it flashes back and fourth between the different family member’s testimonies.
This scene serves to awaken the detective in each of us, as the audience joins the detective in attempting to solve the mystery. It establishes a familiar plot and setting as well as the charmingly nostalgic tone, but that’s where the movies ceases to follow convention.
There is a turn in the plot early on that separates Knives Out from any of the countless mystery novels from which it derives its tone. I won’t tell you what it is. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but this is the point where it breaks away from traditional mystery structures, flipping the roles of characters and making the viewer question all of their earlier conceptions and predictions.
Another thing Knives Out does that I’ve never seen in the genre is to attempt to illustrate a metaphor. One of the primary characters of the film is Thrombey’s nurse, Marta Cabrera. She is a young Latina woman who the Thrombeys frequently clam as “part of the family.” This is undermined by the way that they treat her however, claiming that her family came from a different Latin country each time they mention her and passing her their dishes as if she were a servant rather than a nurse.
There’s more to it than that, but my hands are once again tied by not wanting to divulge any plot specific information. Still, it’s easy to trace a line between the Thrombey’s treatment of Cabrera and the relationship that many Americans have with our Latin immigrant citizens. They are called Americans, but are all-too-frequently treated as though they are actually something less-than. There is a particularly poignant exchange where one of the characters claims the mansion to be their family’s ancestral home, prompting laughter from Blanc who replies that Harlan bought the house in a fire sale in the mid-80s.
But whether you go for the devious plot, the well thought out political themes or simply the charming performances, I hope you’ll give Knives Out a chance. It’s so refreshing to see something truly original in a world of sequels, adaptations and remakes.