Knives Out: A Mystery Perfected

Knives Out: A Mystery Perfected

Milo Shenn, Staff Writer

Every good murder-mystery has two central aspects to its plot structure. The first is the catch. A set of stairs that creak when someone goes by, someone seeing the victim, a catch is anything that makes the movie more complex than just finding out who killed someone; it adds a how. The solution to this is a key. A secret entrance from the building’s exterior, the killer impersonating the victim, this explains the how. The proper combination of these two is what leads to great mystery stories. Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s 2019 film, is a perfect example of the two. This is going to spoil the entire plot of the film, although I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t already, and even if you did. 

The main premise of the movie is introduced when someone comes across the body of Harlan Thrombey in his study. The night prior, he had a family gathering, which was the last time he was seen alive. The Thrombeys are one of the major driving forces throughout the story, constantly disagreeing and arguing with each other, although they pay little mind to Marta, Harlan’s nurse, and the film’s protagonist. Harlan’s death was investigated by detective Benoit Blanc. Blanc interviews Harlan’s family and reveals he was paid anonymously to investigate the case. Then everything goes off the rails.

In a flashback, the film reveals that Marta was the last one to see Harlan, administering his medicine. She accidentally gives him the wrong dosage, which would kill him in 10 minutes. Marta’s mother is an undocumented immigrant, and she would likely come under scrutiny if Marta was to be found responsible for his death. Additionally, the mistake could put her medical career in danger. Harlan gives Marta a specific series of instructions to fabricate an alibi and time of death.

The initial structure of the film pretty much collapses by this point in the story. Knives Out is an incredibly flexible movie, it undergoes multiple direct shifts in plot trajectory. The film quickly shifts to Marta, who was entrusted to help Blanc, having to cover up evidence. She is far from a perfect criminal, forgetting some of Harlan’s directions and leaving behind footprints and recording. She manages to avoid accusations until the reading of Harlan’s will, where she is pronounced as the sole inheritor of all his wealth, his publishing company, and his estate. This entirely shifts her relationship with the living Thrombeys, who have turned on her for the belongings they see as theirs. Because of this, she leaves the rest of the family with Harlan’s estranged grandson Ransom.

Despite its zig-zagging plot structure, the film stays coherent. Every action makes total sense for the characters and the situation they’re in. Despite this, the movie manages to keep the viewers from guessing in what direction the plot is headed. This is an issue in a lot of films, with plot twists being either incredibly predictable or standard. Instead of wondering where a plot will go, the viewer is trying to outsmart the movie instead of taking it on its own terms. In mysteries, this is an especially prevalent issue, with people immediately leaping to conclusions based not on what they have been shown, but what they think would be the most predictable and basic outcome for the story. Knives Out perfectly circumvents the issue by having multiple important plot twists. The viewer’s guard is down, since they know nearly anything can happen. It perfectly leverages expectations to keep the audience in the ark.

Finally, the movie comes to its climax after Marta and Ransom return to the house after running from the police. Blanc, having concluded his investigation, reveals that he has uncovered the truth central to the case. First, Harlan revealed that he would bequeath everything in his will to Marta to Ransom. He devised a plan, making use of the Slayer Rule, a law in which, if one is found responsible for someone’s death, accidentally or otherwise, the will is invalidated and inheritance is divided between the family. He swapped two of the vials of medicine and removed the antidote belonging to Marta, in hopes that she would accidentally overdose Harlan. However, due to subconsciously recognizing the weight of the vials, Marta had actually administered the proper dosage. During Harlan’s wake, Ransom used the opportunity of the empty house to take Marta’s nursing equipment with him. Upon learning that Harlan’s death was reported as a suicide, he anonymously hired Blanc in hopes that he would find Marta guilty. 

What sets Knives Out apart from most movies in its genre is, frankly, everything about it. It has a unique tone, characters, and it both actively rejects and rejoices in common tropes of mysteries. Its front as a standard murder-mystery brought in fans of the genre, but it falls away to reveal a series of plot twists, before it neatly concludes itself in a way that both falls in line with genre tradition and stands out entirely. It understands the genre, but is unwilling to just create another movie in it. It instead builds on it, making a story that is completely unique. That, however, isn’t going to be the case for long. A sequel is already being worked on, and it’s likely to be an equally unique take on the genre. As a story, it has a thorough understanding of the genre, one that it uses to completely subvert all its expectations. That’s not all it has going for it, though, with consistently strong comedy and character,  as well as even a political message. Knives Out remains one of my favorite movies, and with good reason. It manages to be constantly changing and always an enjoyable watch for me.