‘Knives Out’ brings sharp twists to the classic whodunit murder mystery

Illustration by Abby Giuseppe

Aaron Royce, Contributing Writer

Whodunit murder mysteries are a subgenre of films that have been released slowly throughout the decades. This genre sticks to a singular formula for plots — typically a murder involving a group of suspects that the guilty individual is drawn from by a detective. 

Most of them are often based on books by authors like Agatha Christie, rarely being given original screenplays. Due to the generally similar plots of whodunits, these movies don’t provide enough variety in content to warrant regular theatrical releases.

Films in this thriller and mystery subgenre — like “Gosford Park,” “Clue” and the recent “Murder on the Orient Express” — typically bring star-studded casts together to solve a murder case. 

Though they’re fun and make use of numerous character tropes, whodunit films are rarely set in modern time periods or based on original cinematic plots.

“Knives Out,” however, has received critical acclaim for doing all of these things that past whodunit films don’t, while still maintaining their plot staples. 

Set in the present day, the film follows the apparent suicide of wealthy mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). 

When the circumstances of his death leave all of the dysfunctional Thrombey family members as suspects and draw in Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), it’s up to Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to unravel what actually happened to Harlan. 

The cast, which is unique for this type of movie, is an aspect that immediately caught viewers’ attention. Rather than fill the cast with leads that have all acted in the same genres before, or are of the same generations, this film combines actors with a variety of ages and backgrounds. 

“Overall, ‘Knives Out’ is purely fun and doesn’t masquerade itself as a more serious thriller or mystery movie, as similar flicks often do.” —Aaron Royce

There are A-list action heroes like Chris Evans and Craig, cult-favorite actresses like Toni Colette and Jamie Lee Curtis, and relative newcomers like Katherine Langford, Armas and Jaeden Martell. The group is exceptionally well-rounded with no shortage of star power.

The casting of Evans and Craig is exceptional, as it places both mainstream actors in roles that are starkly different from their respective acting careers as Captain America and James Bond. 

Craig portrays the Southern-accented Blanc with a delightful element of camp, even including references to “Sherlock Holmes” that make fantastic use of his suspicious detective role. 

The lack of sharp tuxedos or a crisp British accent makes this investigative law enforcer the polar opposite of Craig’s renowned Bond portrayal. The character switch from the protagonist we’ve seen him play in numerous action films is absurdist and comedic, making the distinctly non-007 detective a scene-stealer.

Evans, meanwhile, is in a similar casting situation as grown-up rich kid Ransom Drysdale, son to Jamie Lee Curtis’s character Linda. As Evans has played either Captain America or a series of positive-minded protagonists in dramas and rom-com for the last decade, this was a sharp character turnaround. 

The only likable thing about Evans’ character in this film is his wardrobe, providing perfect men’s fall fashion inspiration. However, the way he carries himself brings to mind an antagonistic version of “Gossip Girl”’s Nate Archibald, or a snobby, grown-up high school lacrosse captain. 

There’s no sleek jacket or cable-knit sweater that can sugarcoat Ransom’s bratty behaviors, ego or lack of respect for his older family members. 

Given Evans’ acting background, the complete personality switch from characters audiences have grown used to seeing him play is highly entertaining. His turn as Ransom stirs hope that he’ll be portraying more non-heroes in the next decade.

Though its casting is a notable standout, the current tone and aspects of the film give “Knives Out” a fresh take on the whodunit mystery while maintaining elements the genre is known for. 

The Massachusetts mansion where most of the movie is set, as well as it’s vintage-laden interior, is a hallmark of predecessor films like “Clue.” The types of characters known to be in murder mysteries — an outsider, suspects in varying degrees of wealth and a detective conducting the investigation alongside various first-person storylines — are also present. 

Updates to these details — like the lack of a clearly malicious character from the film’s start, mild political references, subtle racial and social commentary and an absurdist vomiting scene — make this take on the genre fresh and modern. 

Overall, “Knives Out” is purely fun and doesn’t masquerade itself as a more serious thriller or mystery movie, as similar flicks often do. 

The present-day aspects and campy characters give an entertaining makeover to the whodunit murder mystery, while its classic details show appreciation for the movies and books that have defined the genre. 

Though it initially seems like an adventure-laden thriller, “Knives Out” is packed with amusement and twists that add a new layer to the whodunit film genre. It’s undoubtedly one of the most entertaining films this season, and indefinitely one of the genre’s best.

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