“One of Us is the Killer” – KNIVES OUT & “Subverting” Murder-Mystery Ensembles

(This contains spoilers for the recent film Knives Out, so be forewarned)

The root of good modern detective fiction and noir has arguably always circled around the inevitable drain that is class struggle and class distinctions, something that more classic detective fiction has arguably lacked. Murder On The Orient Express is almost exclusively about the upper crust, for example, and that wealth and means is ultimately one of the things that allows for the crime of that novel to move forward as it does, within a plot that refuses to acknowledge the absurdities of how there are cross-class barriers and interactions with serious weight to them.

It’s in this sort of post-war space that the more morally-murky and fluid PI, the post-Holmes or post-Poirot, that modern whodunits where the crime itself is simply a way to examine larger issues through a relatable and easily-digestible lens. What made Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson (whose film Brick is also an excellent look at noir fiction through the absurdist overlay of high school) unique is that while it does on the surface subvert the more old-fashioned “locked room whodunnit” to point out many of the absurdities of such a story by framing it in a modern setting, it actually instead uses that overlay to create a fascinating modern noir story that, as noir should, pushes a murder into the background to address class unrest and struggle, racism, faux-liberalism, and privilege as the truth of Harlan Thrombey’s death and the surprise inheritance of Marta becoming the focus of the film’s action without fully pulling away from Benoit Blanc, our “gentleman detective”, working with (surprisingly-competent for this sub-genre) law enforcement to solve the case.

I went into this movie with one set of expectations regarding my anticipated film experience, and ultimately came out of it with a drastically-different one that felt like it thoroughly pushed my earlier predictions over the ledge and then covered it up to make it look like a suicide so that someone could get at an inheritance.

That so much of the film revolves around inheritance, about a controversial patriarch recognizing the toxic damage he’d actually done to his family by allowing privilege to seep into every decision that his wealth influenced, and then from that spun into;

  • A satirical observation of how those with socioeconomic privilege view being “self-made” and the complete lack of awareness of just how ridiculous that can sound, nevermind the impossibility of literally “pulling yourself up by your boostraps”
  • Modern faux-liberalism and “wokeness” that does nothing to address inherent privilege and how hard that attempt at leftist thought and activism halts when privilege and assumed authority/due is challenged and denied
  • A direct stab at the mythology of legacy and heritage’s importance and how much of that is an artificial construct that the socioeconomic-elite foist upon themselves and their heirs, perpetuating lies that they hope will become truth
  • A very hard look at the blind spots about and within the younger generations always assumed to be either completely apolitical/asocially-aware of status but in fact fully immerse themselves in their privilege or end up betraying outward vocal values once that privilege can be threatened

is so incredibly fascinating to me. The film could have halted solely at being just a clever retelling of the locked-room story, but with the very specific digs at how, in the end every member of the Thrombey family is concerned with nothing more than the preservation of their racist privilege disguised as a legacy they squabble over even as they insisted that they were owed nothing and had worked to earn it all themselves (every single one of them a fucking liar about that in a way that made the audience collectively groan and laugh at them!) elevated it so much more to me.

And even as all this is going on, there’s still the story and acting itself, still utilizing what it was about this form of classic detective fiction (both in prose and cinema) that made it so popular, which was the cast itself (of characters); Johnson’s Thrombey family are all despicable shitheads wallowing in privilege and the protection they think/know it affords them, but at the same time are all such a wide and varied cast of shitheads that A) the obvious class issues of the film don’t feel forced upon you because B) the ways in which it manifests so naturally in everyone, even the “SJW” college-aged daughter who caves into privilege and family pressure to protect what she sees as what she’s “owed” (her continued college education). It’s just so good, the dialogue flowing naturally to feel like actual conversations (and not the monologues that could threaten to take over films like this), allowing for a wide cast of big names to allow for equal space and breath within the film’s world. Every small motion and bit and set were so natural and lived-in, from the way that people sat differently, some with deliberate pose and others in ways to hide themselves from notice, just moved forward at a pace that allowed you to fully sink into the film’s world and enjoy the mystery and ride.

Overall the three-pronged forward motion of the film as mystery/clever approach to classic mystery films/social critique through a noir mystery lens put Knives Out up there with Parasite as one of my films of the year (and in fact the social/socioeconomic themes of both make, as I saw someone online mention, both of these interesting back-to-back films within 2019) and honestly, I can’t shut the fuck about it and might even try to see it again soon? We’ll see.

Also, Frank Oz has a cameo as the family’s lawyer, which was so surreal to notice I couldn’t help but laugh.

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