‘Knives Out’ adds new twists to mystery genre

By Marilyn MacLaren, Staff Writer

“Knives Out” (2019) is a murder-mystery film directed by Rian Johnson that plays with the traditional conventions of the genre and applies them to more modern scenarios and characters. The film stars Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, a live-in nurse who is responsible for taking care of Harlan Thrombey, the successful mystery author and wealthy patriarch of the Thrombey family, played by Christopher Plummer. 

After his death, detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, is anonymously hired to investigate the details and the conflicts Harlan Thrombey may have had with surviving family members leading up to his death.

The ensemble boasts an impressive cast making up the members of the Thrombey family, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome and Chris Evans. 

Despite such a large cast, each member of the family is distinctive in their relationship to Harlan Thrombey as well as to Cabrera, as the very title of the film nods to how quickly they turn on her despite their initial fawning over her not as the help but as part of the family. 

One of the most satisfying scenes in the film is the reading of Harlan Thrombey’s will to the rest of the Thrombey family, eager to see what was left for them from his fortune. In a shocking twist, every asset Harlan Thrombey owned now belongs to Cabrera, who is overwhelmed and confused by this action. 

Although this potentially brings more suspicion to Cabrera surrounding her possible role in Harlan’s death, the Thrombey family’s overreactions bring attention to their true natures and intentions, furious that they can no longer rely on Harlan Thrombey and the benefits of his wealth.  

Each member of the Thrombey family intends to praise Cabrera for the services she provides for Harlan Thrombey as an in-home nurse, yet it comes off as completely passive aggressive and builds up, revealing the family’s true nature. 

These microaggressions become increasingly apparent against Cabrera as the film progresses, evolving from incorrectly assuming her heritage and undermining her role in the household to threatening and blackmailing her with her family’s immigration status. 

This betrayal of trust concerning the greed of the family compared to Cabrera and her professional and emotional attachment to Harlan Thrombey — caring for him regardless of his fame and fortune — helps the audience to connect with Cabrera, especially when seeing her as the protagonist overwhelmed by the influence of such a powerful family that show their inner demons hiding behind the Thrombey name. 

Ransom Drysdale, the apparent black sheep shunned by the rest of the family played by Evans, serves as an unlikely ally to Cabrera and appeals to her by appearing to be on her side and more than happy to watch his family legacy go up in flames as they tear each other apart over his grandfather’s estate. 

Yet, he is shown to be the true villain, gaslighting Cabrera over her skills as a nurse and manipulating her into taking the blame for his actions. Evans plays Ransom perfectly as the trust fund baby turned bad boy who, although seems ready to take charge of his life, is in fact dangerously desperate for the security his family name provides him.

If the film were to follow the familiar elements of a typical murder mystery, the audience would most likely view the story through Detective Blanc and his perspective as the standard film noir protagonist, complete with lurking in shadows and shrouded in smoke. 

Yet, Johnson instead focuses on Cabrera and her side to the story, putting her in a sometimes uncomfortable and downright deadly position against the family that allows the audience to relate to her more and her conflicts.

Overall, this film almost works backward in the whodunnit aspect of the genre, but nonetheless brings a fresh perspective that modern audiences can enjoy along with the classic tropes of a murder mystery.

 

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