Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 3, 2023

Knives Out is a fresh and riveting murder mystery

By COLE DOUGLASS | December 5, 2019

Gage Skidmore/CC By-S.A-2.0 Jamie Lee Curtis plays successful businesswoman who protects her family.

I’ll just start off this review by saying that there was very little possibility that I was not going to enjoy Knives Out. I’ve been in love with the murder mysteries ever since I stayed up all night reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in sixth grade, so a film based around the key motifs of her style — an eccentric detective, an ornate mansion, a web of lies and an overly-complicated murder plot — was almost certainly going to be a hit in my eyes.

Still, Knives Out is a fantastic film because it goes beyond the core features of the genre and finds a surprising amount of comedy and heart at the center of its narrative. It is an excellent mystery — one that would surely make Christie proud — and it never loses sight of the camp and utter absurdity at the core of the genre. At the same time, Knives Out is more than happy to break away from convention and use the trappings of the genre to say something deeper about its characters and the impact that the murder has on their lives. It is all at once a parody, deconstruction and homage, and the resulting combination is both wickedly smart and hilarious.

The film opens with the death of mystery writer Harlan Thrombey, found with his throat slashed in his study on the morning after his 85th birthday. Although all the components of a classic murder mystery are present — the greedy family with plenty of motives for wanting their patriarch dead, the mansion full of secret passageways and dark corners, a series of vague alibis and half-obscured clues — the death is clearly a suicide. However, renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) believes that something sinister is afoot in the Thrombey mansion and enlists the aid of Marta (Ana de Armas) — Harlan’s nurse and confidant who vomits every time that she lies — to uncover the truth.

I have to start off by addressing the film’s amazingly talented cast, all of whom did a fantastic job of bringing the conniving cast of characters to life. Daniel Craig created a fantastic send-up of Hercule Poirot, walking the razor-thin line between ace detective and eccentric buffoon with confidence and poise. De Armas, on the other hand, imbibed the perfect amount of confidence and fear into Marta, a reluctant participant in the investigation with secrets of her own to protect. Together, the two made for compelling protagonists, and it was always enjoyable to see them play off (or against) one another.

On the other side of the table, the suspect list was plucked straight from genre conventions, yet given a modern twist. There was the elder daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), a successful businesswoman who used her sharp tongue and blunt persona to protect the family at all costs; the hippie daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) who leeched off of the family fortune in order to start her own Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle brand; the grandson and black sheep of the family (Chris Evans), disliked by every member of his family except his grandfather. Every character was wildly entertaining and terrible in their own unique way, and the film was at its best when it put all of the suspects in a room and let them snipe at one another.

Although the filmmakers never forgot about the death at the center of the film, they were also more than willing to poke fun at the eccentric personalities of the cast of characters. From the running gag about the family members not remembering Marta’s country of origin to the obvious discrepancies between the family members’ accounts of their relationship with the victim, Knives Out was almost brutal in its comedic stylings. Still, it all felt appropriate for the characters, and the transition between dramatic and comedic moments never felt jarring or out-of-place.

Finally, the movie is visually satisfying. Most of it takes place in the Thrombey estate, and the creepily ornate decorations, hidden passageways and twisting corridors convey an overwhelming sense of isolation and unease. Almost every room has a statue or figure of some kind, and it almost always feels like the characters are being watched somehow. 

Likewise, the editing was very clever, used just as often to set up a punchline as it was to emphasize an emotional moment or create a dramatic scene. In particular, the opening scenes — which jump between interviews with each of the suspects — juxtaposed the response of one family member with another, creating a hilariously obvious disconnect between their accounts and setting the tone for the entire rest of the film. 

In the end, Knives Out is a fantastic film that will appeal to even those who are not fans of the mystery genre. It takes everything that makes the genre great and pushes it one step further, resulting in a story that is funny, intelligent and an utter delight to watch. 

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