There is nothing quite like a whodunit?
A film review by Kate O’Brien.
This film was released in 2019. It was written and directed by Rian Johnson.
This is an ensemble piece starring Daniel Craig as the eccentric master detective Benoit Blanc.
I would call this film a parody revival of the classic whodunit murder mystery movie genre, as this film takes classic murder mystery movie tropes and has fun playing with them, and in some cases, subverting them entirely.
This review is the first of a two-part review set. Next week I will be discussing Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. I would not call Glass Onion a direct or traditional sequel, but rather it is the second film in what appears to be a series of films all about Benoit Blanc and the bizarre cases he finds himself investigating. Benoit Blanc is the only character to return to the screen, as Glass Onion introduces audiences to an entirely new set of characters. This is why I would be hesitant to use the word sequel, as in my opinion, Glass Onion can be viewed, understood, and enjoyed as a stand-alone piece. It does not require viewers to have seen Knives Out first. With that being said, I do consider Glass Onion to be a film that steps beyond Knives Out, and I will explain what I mean by this phrase in next week’s discussion.
I consider this review and next week’s review to be a set. The two reviews have been written in a way that hopefully leads to each piece complimenting the other, however as the two films have entirely separate plots and casts, the reviews can also be read entirely independently.
I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I have a favourite film out of the two. It is hard to say, because I really enjoyed both films, and they are so different, however I think I appreciate them in different ways, instead of having a clear cut favourite, and this is another point that I will expand upon as I go on.
Let’s dive into Knives Out.
There will be spoilers ahead, so if you have not watched the film already, you have been warned.
I’m going to dive into a plot overview, and then dive into themes, the murder mystery genre idea, and character types.
The film opens with a stunning yet almost eerie shot of a large mansion that sits on a hill in the middle of nowhere. It is the home of Harlan Thrombey, a wealthy, eccentric mystery writer. How fitting. On the morning after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, Fran the housekeeper brings Harlan his breakfast, only to find him in his study with his throat slit.
The murder mystery movie classic tropes start here. We expect the maid to scream and drop the breakfast tray, followed by a shot of the coffee cup crashing on the carpet. Instead, Fran gasps, almost drops the tray and utters out a not very graceful “Shit!!!” as she realises she is spilling coffee. It is a very subtle thing, but this is the beginning of the tropes being played with.
Knives Out does something that I absolutely love. It is a film that knows what it is. It knows the tropes, it shows us the tropes, and it also has fun with them.
How many times have we seen the maid drop the tray? It is a classic shot, and here it is right at the start of the film, but ever so slightly different.
The detectives have ruled the case a suicide, but the eccentric and famous Benoit Blanc is on the scene. He is a private detective who has been anonymously hired, and he is not willing to close the case just yet. Something compels him to keep looking, and so this is how we get into the plot. The Thrombey family and Marta, Harlan’s nurse who is “like family” – this is a key line- have been gathered in the home for one final round of questions.
As Blanc starts asking each family member questions, it soon becomes clear that each member of the Thrombey family had a motive to kill Harlan. This is a home of vipers and vultures who will not hesitate to stab each other in the back – or maybe even slit a throat.
So now the film asks us, was this a suicide? Or was this a case of foul play?
Let’s take a look at the ensemble.
We’ve got Linda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis.
Linda is Harlan’s daughter. She is a “self-made” woman, just like him, and she idolises her father. Linda is proud of herself, proud of her father, and proud of the Thrombey name.
She is intelligent and guarded. She is highly protective of her family, and this is highlighted when she refuses to give into Blanc’s questioning.
Blanc uses a clever tactic, he asks politely probing questions, alongside observations. His goal is to get each family member to spill something about the other. Linda does not take the bait, but her husband Richard sure does.
Richard is a character that I will expand upon shortly in another point, as I’m going to discuss one of the key themes in the film, which is the idea of the “outsider”.
Richard reveals that Linda’s brother Walt had a fight with their father on the night of the party.
Walt runs Harlan’s publishing company and he publishes the books that his father writes.
Walt has dreams about adaptations and films, but Harlan owns the rights to all of his books, and he will not allow them to be adapted in any way. Walt is furious about this, as this is where the opportunity to earn real money lies.
On the night of Harlan’s birthday, Walt pleaded with his father again to allow him to do more in the company. Harlan says he won’t hold his son back anymore, and he is now free to build something for himself. Devastated that he has just been fired, Walt spends the rest of the night sulking.
Harlan Thrombey has three grandchildren. Ransom (Hugh), Meg, and Jacob.
Walt describes Ransom as the “black sheep” of the family because he has never had a job, yet Harlan has always supported him. He describes Harlan and Ransom’s relationship as a “love/hate” relationship and tells Blanc that Harlan and Ransom argued often and dramatically in front of the entire family, but on the night of Harlan’s birthday party, the pair argued privately in Harlan’s study and Ransom stormed off early.
Meg is a college student. She is the only person in the family who seems to genuinely like and respect Marta and Fran. She scolds a police officer for referring to Marta as “the help” and she scolds Ransom when he refers to Fran by the wrong name. Harlan supports Meg’s college education by paying for her tuition and giving her mother an allowance.
Jacob is a sixteen year old entitled brat. He is described as a “literal Nazi” by Richard, but his father Walt says he is “politically active.” It becomes increasingly obvious that Jacob has extreme views and as the film plays out, it is clear to see that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
This point leads me to discussing Richard, Joni, and Marta, and one of the key themes in the film – The idea of the “outsider”.
Within the kooky, mysterious, eccentric, almost unbelievable story that is Knives Out, there are some very important, very topical themes being discussed. One of these themes is the idea of someone being an “outsider.” There are even “outsiders” within the Thrombey family.
Richard and Joni are outsiders. I am going to call them “familial outsiders” because they are the people who have married into the Thrombey family. Richard is Linda’s husband. He is Ransom’s father. Linda made Richard sign a prenup before they married, meaning that her fortune is hers and hers alone. It is revealed that Richard also argued with Harlan on the day of his party. Before his death, Harlan discovered that Richard has been having an affair and he plans to tell his daughter Linda all about it. Richard knows that if Linda finds out, she will leave him, and he will not enjoy her wealth anymore.
Joni is Harlan’s daughter-in-law. Joni is Meg’s mother. She married his other son Neil, who died shortly after Meg was born. Harlan looks after her and Meg by providing for them.
Joni also argued with Harlan on the day of the party. Harlan found out that Joni had been stealing from him because his office had been wiring money directly to Meg’s school, but tuition money was also being sent to Joni’s account. She was “double-dipping.” Harlan informed Joni that he would be cutting both her and Meg off and she would not receive another payment from him.
Donna is also an outsider. She is Walt’s wife, but we don’t learn too much about her, aside from the fact that she is money hungry and racist. Her character does not get much screen time.
Richard and Joni are familial outsiders because Richard is at the mercy of Linda. He signed a prenup, so his wealth is not actually his wealth. He is not really part of the elite circle. He knows that once Harlan reveals his affair, he is out. The family is clearly irritated by Joni. She is a free-spirit who loves meditation and yoga. She is very obviously too laid-back for the uptight Thrombey family and one can imagine that the only reason she is still included at all is because she is the mother of Harlan’s granddaughter. When Harlan cuts her off, she will be out too.
The plot thickens because now we know that Walt, Richard, and Joni are about to lose their money so all three of them have a motive to want Harlan harmed.
Marta Cabrera is Harlan’s nurse. She is kind, and loyal, and she became more of a friend to Harlan. The Thrombey family treat her as a true “outsider.” She is even more on the outside than Richard or Joni, because she is not connected to the family in any way. She is not married into the family. She is Harlan’s nurse, and while the family claim to like her, to love her even, they still keep her on the periphery because she is an employee.
The power imbalance is somewhat subtle at first. The family keeps telling Marta she is “like family.” They compliment her, they call her a good girl, and a hard worker, but as the film plays out, it becomes clear that they do not respect her at all. They do not consider her to be like family. When talking about Marta, each family member tells Blanc that she is from somewhere different. She is said to be from Paraguay, and then from Uruguay, from Ecuador, and from Brazil. This is a somewhat subtle detail, but it is a clever one as it highlights that the family clearly didn’t listen to Marta and they don’t actually care where she is from. To go another step further, it demonstrates that this family will list places like Paraguay, Ecuador, and Brazil etc. as if they are all just one and the same.
There are also key moments where subtle actions highlight that the family think Marta is beneath them. She was not allowed to attend Harlan’s funeral. There is a scene where Richard, Walt, and Joni are discussing immigrants in America. Joni is clearly the most liberal, and it does become clear which political issues were most relevant at the time that this film was released. Richard feels that America is for Americans, and he feels that if people want to come to America, then they need to do it the right way. Joni is trying to explain that it is not such a simple issue and that people just want better lives for their children, and she is fiercely against children being detained in cages. Richard feels the blame lies with the parents of those children. He makes Marta join the conversation. She is deeply uncomfortable, but Richard wants her opinion. He parades her in front of everyone, and while he is at it, he very subtly hands her his plate because he is finished with his cake. This moment reveals everything about Richard’s character. He can say what he wants about Marta being someone who has worked hard the right way, so now she too gets to enjoy America, because at the end of the day, he sees her as beneath him. It does not matter how often they say she is “like family”, he sees her as someone who is there to take his plate. Marta is a registered nurse, she is not a maid or a housekeeper, and yet Richard simply views her as someone who exists in that home in a service capacity. It is not her job to take care of his plates, but he feels he is entitled to make her take it off him anyway. I have more to say on this, but I will come back to it in a later point.
Marta was the only person who genuinely valued Harlan’s company. She is honest to a fault, to the extent that lying makes her physically vomit. This is a gag that is used to move the plot along, it is a physical comedic act that will make some people squirm as the detectives know when Marta is lying because she gets sick right in front of them. Marta also played a key role on the night of Harlan’s birthday party, but before I talk about whodunit, and the reveal of whodunit and how they did it, I want to start to dig deeper into the themes that this film explores.
Ultimately I would say that Knives Out is a film about power. Who has power? How do they have that power? Who do they have power over? What will someone do to retain that power? Underneath all of the mysterious smoke and mirrors, in the end all motives are monetary.
For all of the family’s claims about being great, about being self-made, about building things for themselves, they are, at their core, a family of entitled, money hungry vultures. They are hypocrites and they are desperate to hold on to their father’s fortune, and all of the power that the money affords them.
The clawing for money is a point that I will circle back to, but first I want to discuss the reveal of whodunit.
Spoiler Alert – Whodunit?
Ransom did it. At first audiences believe that Marta accidentally killed Harlan by mixing up his medications and giving him a deadly dose of morphine. Unable to find the emergency antidote, Marta panics and tries to get help. Harlan stops her. The pair form an airtight plan so Marta will be eliminated as a suspect. Marta’s mother is undocumented, and Marta fears she’ll be harassed and deported if she is investigated and that comes to light. Harlan knows this, and he tells Marta that she must do as he says to protect her mother.
It is later revealed that Marta did not mix up the medications at all. Ransom tampered with them and switched the bottles, but Marta still inherently knew the difference because she had administered the medication a hundred times before and she is a good nurse. The argument that Ransom had with his grandfather on the night of his birthday was about money. Harlan revealed he was cutting him out of his will, and he revealed that he was leaving absolutely everything to Marta. Ransom came up with a plan, he planned to frame Marta for the death of his grandfather, knowing that if she was found responsible for his death, even accidentally, she could not inherit anything.
This is likely why Harlan slit his throat. He wanted to take as much attention away from Marta as possible, and no one would suspect an overdose when they found someone with their throat slit.
The cause of death really was suicide, but a tangled web was still created.
Before the truth finally comes out, Ransom knew that the will reading would reveal that Marta was due to inherit everything. He also thought she would be found guilty, overturning the inheritance. Ransom was cocky and he was the only family member who was calm at the will reading, and this point allows me to dig deeper into the film’s commentary on money and power.
When the Thrombey family find out that each of them have been cut out of the will, they all go mad. They scream, they shout, they hurl accusations and obscenities at Marta, the one who they claimed to love, the one who they insisted was “like family” because when it comes down to the money, she is not family. Not real family.
When Linda learns that her father cut off Ransom, she tells her son that this could be the best thing to ever happen to him, and Richard tells his son that maybe now he’ll be forced to grow up. Such condescending words from people who are still rolling in their riches.
Five minutes later, when they learn with the rest of the family that they too have been cut out, they are furious, they are devastated, they are thrown into a state of sheer, desperate panic.
Ransom is the person who helps Marta escape the chaos, he tells her to hop into his car and he drives her away while saying “This could be the best thing to happen to all of you” with a smirk on his face.
At this point in the plot, audiences don’t know yet about what Ransom did, so at this moment, I actually found myself liking him. I thought this was really clever. From the start, Ransom is set up to be the worst Thrombey. He is called the black sheep, he fights with his grandfather, he has never had a job so he just uses his grandfather’s money. He is rude to Fran. He considers “the help” beneath him and makes them refer to him as Hugh, not Ransom. He is cocky, he is arrogant, and he has a smirk that you’d love to smack off his face. The dogs don’t even like him. Need I say more?
Chris Evans did a great job in my opinion, because in this second act of the film, he made Ransom strangely likeable. There is something to be said about an asshole who knows that they are an asshole and does not pretend otherwise. We can see that Ransom is not nice, but he never pretends to be. When he and Marta are having lunch and talking about what happened that night, Ransom gets Marta to confess to him about the medications. He tells Marta that she is going to keep the inheritance, that he will help her get away with it, and then she can just give him his share. He hates his family so he feels no loyalty to them, and this way he still gets his inheritance anyway. It is a win win.
At this moment, I was okay with this plan. As a viewer I said “Okay sure, why not. I did not expect him and Marta to team up but why not?”
Ransom turning out to be the true killer is another way that this film played with murder mystery tropes. He is set up as the worst character. At the beginning, it is likely that many people suspected him, but then dismissed the thought as too obvious. The film then leads us to believe that he is actually, maybe alright, still an asshole, but slightly better than his vulture-like family and most people would have likely been satisfied with him helping Marta get away with the medication mistake and get his cut anyways. So when it is revealed that he had malicious intentions all along, that it actually was the most obvious choice all along, this was another brilliant way that Knives Out presented very classic and obvious tropes in new ways.
Ransom is not a good person, but he is not the worst Thrombey. The Thrombey family members are all awful, and all in different ways. Linda is a hypocrite. She is not self-made at all. She did not build her fortune from the ground up like her father, she started out with a million dollar loan from him. Linda as a character is someone who continuously calls herself self-made, she is proud of this. She says that Walt does not really do anything, he just publishes their father’s books. He is not the same as her. No, no, no. She conveniently forgets to mention that million dollar loan from her father when she was just starting out, and I wonder how self-made from the ground up she would have been without that loan.
Joni’s free-spirited, liberal concerns die when her money is threatened.
Walt very menacingly threatens to draw attention to Marta’s mother if Marta does not renounce the inheritance, but Meg, I think Meg may be the worst of all.
Meg, the one who scolded officers and family members on Marta’s behalf. Meg who said Marta is her friend, who said she wanted to help Marta, who said that the family discussed it and they want to take care of Marta, she is the one who I think turned out to be the worst of all.
At first she is horrified when her family members attack Marta. She tells her mother that if grandad wanted to give the money to Marta, then she thinks they should respect that, but the tables turn when Joni reveals she is broke, and she will not be able to pay for Meg’s college.
So Meg calls Marta and she asks her what she plans to do, she tells Marta she should give the money back, because she is not family, not really. Meg tells Marta that her mother is broke, that she will have to drop out of college, but Marta tells her she won’t let that happen, she will pay for college, she will “take care” of her, and Meg learns how condescending and patronising it really is to be on the other end of that sentence. Now I would think that if someone feared they would have to drop out of college, they would be relieved if someone told them that they would not, that their fees would be paid for, but Meg is not relieved, because she is no longer the powerful one in this relationship. Meg was happy to be friends with Marta and be kind to Marta and scold others for not being kind to Marta when she was the one who held the cards. When she was the wealthy one. Now that the wind has changed, she doesn’t like it so much, and so she tells the rest of the family about Marta’s mother being undocumented. Meg gives her family the information they need to harass and bully Marta. I think Meg is the worst kind of character, she is the most sinister kind of character. Ransom is awful, but he never pretends that he isn’t.
Meg on the other hand pretends to be nice, pretends to be progressive, maybe she even truly believes that she is, but as soon as she faced hardship, she stabbed Marta in the back and called her an outsider.
I think having Meg turn out to be the worst Thrombey was a very clever way of highlighting the mindset of a certain kind of person. There are people who sit on moral high horses, claiming that as long as people do things the “right way” then they are welcome to share in the riches, but they don’t ever want that equality to actually happen, because their kindness, their morals, their compassion all depend on being the powerful one in the relationship. They can’t handle actually being on equal footing with someone, because then they have to admit that they don’t really respect the other person at all. They have to admit that they do see others as beneath them, that they do have unfair biases and prejudices. Knives Out was released in 2019, but this is a topic that is still relevant today, and Glass Onion also handles very important themes about money, power, and manipulation that I will discuss next week.
So Ransom’s plan failed, because Marta did not give Harlan the wrong medication after all.
His plan didn’t go as smoothly as he thought it would because Fran saw him tampering with Marta’s medical bag and she assumed that he was poisoning Harlan. At one point it appears that Fran is babbling on about a Hallmark movie, and it is easy to dismiss it as ridiculous chatter, but when you actually listen, you will hear that she is frantically telling Marta about a movie where the protagonist was killed slowly by being poisoned in small doses overtime, and that is what she believes Ransom was doing to Harlan. She also states that her cousin works as a receptionist in the medical examiner’s office. Another sentence that can be easily missed, but it is very important later.
Fran also wants money, so when she gets a hold of the toxicology report, she attempts to blackmail Ransom by sending him the report. “I know what you did.” The report actually reveals that Marta was innocent all along, and Ransom cannot let this be known, so he sends the report to Marta and tricks her into thinking that the report will show the overdose. He then kills Fran with the same medication overdose that he attempted to kill Harlan with.
The station mysteriously gets burned down, destroying all evidence.
Just when we think all is lost and Marta is about to renounce the inheritance, Blanc reveals the copy that Fran hid, proving Marta’s innocence and unravelling Ransom’s web.
It was an intriguing mystery and as I was watching, I had many different thoughts and guesses about how it might play out. I had different guesses about who the killer would turn out to be, because at certain points, it really could have been anyone. That is what made Knives Out so great in my opinion. The Thrombey’s are terrible people, and it really could have been anyone.
All motives were monetary. I thoroughly enjoyed Blanc telling the family off, it was amazing to watch him tell them that they are vultures and they have treated Marta like shit, and that she would be keeping the inheritance. Blanc is a fantastic character and I look forward to seeing him again in more films.
Something that I want to talk about is the attention to detail in this film. It was brilliant, and it was brilliant in Glass Onion too. Knives Out is the kind of film that every time you watch it, you will notice something new. A great example is that there is blood on Marta’s shoe. A tiny, almost non-existent spatter of blood, proving she was in the room, and audiences are not shown the blood stain until the middle of the film. Later, when all is resolved, Marta asks Blanc when he figured out that she was involved in some way. He tells her that he knew from the moment he met her, and he points out the tiny speck of blood on her shoe. When I watched the film again, I caught that in the scene where Blanc and Marta meet for the first time, he does indeed glance down at her feet.
It is tiny little details like this that make all of the difference. Fran’s line about the murder movie is another fantastic example. It seems like such a throwaway thing, but it is so important. Blanc notes how the dogs never bark at Marta and he feels that a dog is the best judge of character. The dogs bark at every other family member, especially Ransom. Linda states early on that she and her father have their own secret way of communicating, she says her father loved games. This could be viewed as simply a sweet thing to say. Linda clearly adores her father, so she feels they can speak in a way that no one else understands. Later we learn that they truly did have a secret language. She finds the letter from her father about Richard’s affair, one that appears blank, but then her lighter reveals the hidden ink. The closing shot of the film is iconic. The fallen Thrombey family members are all outside the house, arguing with the officers who are taking Ransom away. They turn, mouths agape, and stare up at Marta who is standing proudly on the balcony. They always looked down at her, but now she is literally looking down at them. The film ends with a shot of her sipping out of her coffee cup, the cup that Fran did not drop at the start of the film. The cup has a saying on it. It reads “My house.”
It is wonderful, visual storytelling. It was a really enjoyable watch. I was thoroughly invested.
I know that I jumped around to different discussion points in this review, but it naturally happened that way as I was going through everything I wanted to say. I also felt that the film did this too, we jumped back and forth in time, we jumped into different people’s perspectives, and so my own thoughts kind of naturally jumped around too as I was writing. I’m enjoying this new style of writing where I just go with the flow a bit more, but if anyone has any questions or thoughts then please do drop a comment because I’m always excited to read other people’s thoughts, opinions, and interpretations.
I would highly recommend watching Knives Out if you haven’t already. It is a funny yet very intriguing watch. If you have already seen it, and you feel inspired to watch it again, then I would encourage you to keep an eye out for things you may not have caught the first time around. I would also say watch and simply enjoy the fun that is a classic murder mystery.
Enjoy the house on the hill. Enjoy the eccentric detective. Enjoy the arrogant family. Enjoy every twist and turn.
Knives Out is an entertaining revival of the classic whodunit?
It is funny, it is quirky, it is at times a bit ridiculous, but within all of the intrigue, this is a clever film about money and power. A brilliant story told by a fantastic cast. Bravo.
Have you seen these films? Did you guess the killer? Do you prefer Knives Out or Glass Onion?
Be sure to tune in next Wednesday. I will be reviewing and discussing Glass Onion.
In the meantime you can also follow me on Instagram – @katelovesliterature if you don’t already.
Happy New Year.