Synopsis: The circumstances surrounding the death of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey are mysterious, but there’s one thing that renowned Detective Benoit Blanc knows for sure — everyone in the wildly dysfunctional Thrombey family is a suspect. Now, Blanc must sift through a web of lies and red herrings to uncover the truth.
Nothing brings a family together like murder—especially the Thrombeys.
Knives Out took 2019 by storm and became the perfect savory yet delightful whodunnit no one has ever really seen before. Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Looper) took inspiration from Agatha Christie novels, and with keen attention, its obvious Rian is a student of the murder mystery genre with a great deal of admiration and passion for the mechanics of these stories. From the name of the film’s patriarch, Harlan Thrombey—an homage to the 80s whodunnit?, Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey, to the many dialogue nods (i.e.“Something is afoot with this whole affair”, an homage to the Agatha Christie novel Something’s Afoot), Knives Out bleeds adoration for murder mystery stories.
The buildup to the film’s release was packaged perfectly. From the font of the logo, casting, editing of the trailer and press details, it became very clear, very fast that Knives Out would be a film consistent in its world building from sky to ground. And upon first watch, it didn’t fall short of its promise. But there in the theater—remember when we were all free to cram into those often? —I was knocked surprised by something. The plot, underneath it all, was political at its heart. This is not uncommon of murder mysteries. In fact, classism is something many Agatha Christie’s novels revolve around. However, in a time of social unrest and the constant flow of seeing brown and black bodies at risk in the media, politics in a murder mystery seemed like a huge risk. And it was. The rumblings of the controversy were buzzing in reviews. Some viewers were dissatisfied, burned out from everything always going back to race. Others were appreciative of the narrative. Still, I found myself shocked before I could really see how all of Johnson’s brilliant puzzle pieces created this fresh mosaic of an age-old image.
I had to come back to Knives Out many times for its theme to truly sink in. When it finally did, I found myself clapping in my living room, cheesing as the final shot of Marta standing victoriously cuts to black. Marta works for everything she has. She minds her business, is a great friend to Harlan, cares for him medically and emotionally, then goes home to mind her business some more. Marta is not a threat to the Thrombeys, because she’s the help. Before events turn awry, we see Harlan dote and care for his friend Marta. He’s even more forgiving of her when he learns she made a fatal mistake. He didn’t speak of his family with such concern and respect moments before. As the minutes roll on, we see why that may have been. Harlan’s family doesn’t know who they are: alt-right, conservative or some kind of liberal. One thing is for sure, all are entitled and enabled. And when the first twist presents itself, Marta is no longer the acceptable immigrant from “Ecuador” or any other South American country they name, she’s lumped with the “illegals” the Thrombeys complain to her about. She’s no longer part of the family or someone the Thrombeys will take care of. She definitely isn’t admired for being so good to Harlan anymore. She is the enemy. A threat. A line cutter. Or as the Thrombeys so eloquently put it, a “slut”, “bitch”, “anchor baby”.
Thus, the game of chess begins—a feature we see added to many scenes. From there Knives Out is best described by its own dialogue. “It is not a donut hole at all. But a smaller donut within its own hole.” Johnson’s direction of story telling takes us from murder mystery to cat and mouse to thriller, cat and mouse again, before reversing back to murder mystery. These risks and choices are what makes Knives Out fresh. It’s the first time we’ve seen a story of this caliber and mood play out on modern American soil with commentary on American systems and problems. It’s the presentation that throws the viewer, like being served a costly burger on a garnished silver platter. Hence why it took me some time to fully realize just how quick and weighty the film’s elements were. I didn’t quite know what I was consuming because it made me feel so good.
There are parallel moments in the film—both in conversation with Marta. One at the Thrombey Mansion as the family discusses the audacity of illegal immigrants. Don Johnson’s character rants about how in this country, you work hard to get what you want here. You don’t cut the line. It’s something we—yes, he’s including himself—all have to do. Work. We all work to obtain everything we have. No handouts.
Cut to Marta’s anxiety ridden lunch with Ransom Drysdale—the trust fund baby a.k.a wolf in the finest cable knit sweater. They talk of his inheritance, or lack thereof after he’s cut from Harlan’s will. Marta makes a comment on how Ransom’s grandfather wanted him to work for his luxuries, like his mother did. Ransom scoffs at this and explains his mother received a million dollar loan from her father.
Right then, it’s apparent there’s unspoken rules of who can and cannot cut the line.
In a whodunnit, costume design is very telling of the characters. If you look closely, you can read who they are before they tell you themselves. For Jenny Eagan, this was key in developing the nuances and backgrounds of each player. Specifically, Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) and his infamous cream sweater. Eagan never anticipated it’d become the fuss that it is now.
“I’m not sure if it’s the sweater or who’s wearing the sweater,” jokes Knives Out costume designer Jenny Eagan to The Hollywood Reporter.
“That might be part of it, too. He looks pretty great.” She chose the sweater during a rushed fitting which left her void of time to even know its brand. All she knew was Ransom needed to wear white to show his status, in addition to building on the cozy element of the seasonal theme of the murder mystery film. Eagan classifies Ransom as an “eccentric spoiled boy”. “He’d grown up privileged and used his money to buy fancy cars, to buy fancy clothes, but you could tell that he didn’t necessarily appreciate those things.”
Eagan’s mind dove into the essential territory of character development to paint her picture of Ransom’s personality with each garment. “He just didn’t care…. I imagine it (the sweater) laying on the chair in his bedroom and he just threw it on day after day,” she says. “But giving it little nicks or little holes here and there, meaning he didn’t take care of it…the holes and the tatter gave him a touch of that disrespect. It was a disrespect to the family, a disrespect to the name, a disrespect to his clothes.” Eagan was extensive in her vision, going as far as imagining where the sweater pulled if it were too tight, shrinking and stretching it with the washer and dryer, then taking a Dremel or sheet of sandpaper to the sweater. “I don’t get scared. I just go for it. Sometimes it feels natural, like the neck. You always know if it’s made of knit, if you break a thread, it unravels.”
This was her method right down to Ransom’s Gucci loafers—which were worn by crew members to obtain that signature neglected distressed look of his. Eagan’s thorough detail of backstory is embedded in each costume is brilliant. No design or character dons similar threads. Leaving enough room for their large personalities to add color to the Thrombey mansion, even in its owner’s absence.
Eagan’s mission was to create warmth among wealth for each character. They had to be relatable. Aside from Toni Collette’s hippie dippie character Joni, everyone dons a sweater at some point in the film. Jamie Lee Curtis, who usually plays characters in muted threads, burns through the screen in vibrant jewel tones that work very well for her. “She was so excited,” Eagan says of the actress. “I remember her saying to me so much that she always wore black and that she never wore another color, but she definitely saw this character in lots of color and had a specific friend of hers…. She sent me pictures and she was like, ‘This was just the character.’ It was really specific, and it really made it fun.”
As Detective Elliot says in the film, the Thrombey Mansion is a living Clue board. I found this to be an autumn dream. Scenes in the home were the most enjoyable, and when characters left the estate, I found myself wanting them to go back to the estate. The home took up a persona of its own, even down to the ornate windows. It could even be classified as its own character. Set designers speckled Harlan’s legend, career, imagination, personality and humor from roof to floor. The pride production had in turning the Ames Mansion into Harlan’s sanctuary is obvious. Fun fuels great effort, and according to cast and crew, it’s something Rian Johnson regards as imperative during shooting.
I’ve noticed new treasures, props and symbols in different locations of the home upon re-watching Knives Out, it really makes 2 Deerborn Drive an intriguing and filling place to be.
Casting & Dialogue
The absolute stand out draw to this film is its ensemble. Daniel Craig, Toni Colette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Mike Shannon, Jaeden Martell, Katherine Langford, Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan, Ana De Armas, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, and even a small Joseph Gordon Levitt (a recurring creative partner of Rian’s) cameo?! The talent of each of these actors is extensive and bright. Fun is a word I’ve already mentioned, but it’s the only repetitive that comes to mind in review. Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, a southern detective, is a good time. Sure, the accent is strong and overdone here and there, but that is the magic—building this ridiculous caricature. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to not admit it’s funny because Blanc’s personality is based out of some truth. I’ve encountered a few Benoit Blancs. Clifford “T.I.” Harris to be exact. (Now, that I’ve shared this with you, dear reader, are you having trouble unhearing T.I. recite grand vernacular of Blanc’s dialogue in a fire lit study? Lord have mercy, it’s been on loop in my mind for a year, and I’ve been the only lonely member of this club. It’s nice to have company.)
Jokes aside, while I desired more time with the cast, a la Clue, it’s clear we received more unconventionally. Depth was placed in the character’s complete construction (hair, makeup, costume, placement, lighting, etc.), not just the stellar, sharp dialogue. And after seeing deleted scenes that would’ve lent more perspective, I’m positive the final cut is the best.
I’m not so sure I’ll ever see Chris Evans as anything but America’s Sweetheart—and that’s a good thing. When Ransom plays soft and down with Marta, I believe him partially. I question myself because Chris is a good guy, so it’s easy for him to translate that to the viewer. By that point, I wasn’t sure where the story would go, then it went on to be the gift that literally keeps on giving like a tiny treasure boxed within larger boxes.
That’s Knives Out in a nutshell: a good time genre bender, the familiar road you travel with detours at every turn. Harlan Thrombey set the stage for his greatest story ever, one that continues to write itself even in his absence.
There’s no telling where Knives Out 2 will take us next, but I’m eager to go for the drive.
All in all, Knives Out was a one of a kind release on its debut. A year later, this still holds true. If you have not yet seen it and are looking for an ensemble murder mystery with a touch of comedy and darkness for the spooky season, look no further.