How Knives Out subverts the murder-mystery

Major spoilers for ALL of Knives Out! (obviously)

You enter Knives Out expecting a twist. Part of the appeal of murder mysteries is that audiences want to outsmart the detectives, to uncover the secrets before they are revealed to everyone else. Rian Johnson’s recent whodunit is very aware of such expectations, having the plot centre around the suspicious suicide of a famous murder-mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) a man who, as Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) comments, “practically lived on a Clue board”.

Claire Folger – © 2018 

But when entering into a film with such instincts, it risks turning into a guessing game to be ‘beaten’ rather than enjoyed, and it is hard to subvert people’s expectations when they’re already anticipating a twist. So how do you surprise an audience that is expecting the unexpected? What does Knives Out do to truly surprise its inquiring audience?

It gives them the answer.

Early on, after the suspicious family members have been questioned by the police and private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, with a deliciously absurd Southern drawl), they encounter Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse. Marta is the exact opposite of the Thrombey family; a kind-hearted, hard-working immigrant who lives in a small apartment with her sister and undocumented mother and, unlike the privileged pariahs that are the rest of the Thrombeys, someone who Harlan actually liked.

She also cannot lie, any attempt at mistruths causing her to literally vomit. From here it appears to be a fun if traditional set-up, with the astute “gentlemen Detective” and his new sidekick unravelling the mystery of Harlan’s death – Blanc even calls Marta the “Watson” to his Holmes. Instead of a gradual reveal, however, the next flashback pulls the rug out from under the audience who were trying to tug at it themselves, revealing the unthinkable: Marta killed Harlan.

Not intentionally, of course. During their standard bedtime routine, Marta accidentally gave Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine, one impossible to reverse. But Harlan, sympathetic to Marta (and her undocumented mother who would be deported if authorities inquired too closely) helps cover up his own ‘murder’. He tells her to leave immediately, then to secretly return so as to impersonate him later that night, moving Marta outside the window of opportunity. Meanwhile he will cut his own throat, making his death, as the police ‘correctly’ concluded, a suicide.

Claire Folger – © 2018 

This wonderful twist does several things for the film. Firstly, it flips the whole dynamic of a whodunit, where instead of following Blanc on his quest to uncover the truth, the audience knows the truth and is rooting against his discovery. Instead we are rooting for Marta (the murderer!), largely assisted by De Armas’ warm and sympathetic performance, to get away with it. Scenes of Blanc’s investigation, such as him finding mud-prints, are not exciting so much as filled with scared tension, and there are several comic scenes where Marta must hide evidence under the pretence of assisting Blanc. With this premature reveal, Rian Johnson has effectively reversed the premise of a murder mystery; we no longer want the murder to be solved.

However, Knives Out still functions as a satisfying murder-mystery, given this reveal is only the partial truth, with the whole picture only being unveiled at the end. Marta may think she killed Harlan (it was him who cut his own throat, after all) – and much of the film focuses on her inner dilemma between wanting to honour his wish and wanting to confess her guilt – but the film grows increasingly complex from this early twist. Revealing it so early satiates audience anticipation; because they think the subversion has already happened, they therefore stop looking for the ultimate reveal. By effectively containing a ‘double-twist’, Knives Out manages to surprise an audience that had entered prepared to outsmart it.

The ending shows that Ransom (Chris Evans) was responsible, as he switched around Harlan’s morphine and his regular medicine in order to frame Marta, because he knew Harlan was cutting the whole family out of his will. The will would be reversed only if Marta were to be charged for his murder. However, Ransom failed to account for two things: Firstly, that Marta was such a good nurse that she instinctively gave Harlan the correct medicine even with the wrong label. Though she thought she’d given him the wrong medicine and indirectly caused Harlan to commit suicide, the toxicology report proved her innocence.

Claire Folger – © 2018 

This awareness leads to the second oversight, Harlan killing himself to protect Marta’s name. This unexpected turn is what led Ransom to anonymously hire Blanc, to prove Marta’s guilt without needing to explain why he suspected her.

Not only is this a satisfying and intricate twist that satisfyingly resolves the film, it also functions as poetic justice. Ransom’s undoing, as for all the Thrombey’s, is underestimating the decency and capabilities of others. They are all dependant on inheritance from Harlan, unable as they are to function on their own, but Marta ultimately prevails by being selfless and truthful and rightly inheriting Harlan’s estate.

Beneath its cynicism and sharp wit, Knives Out is ultimately about the triumph of kindness. Maybe in a cruel world full of unfairness that’s the biggest shock of all – but it’s a twist I will gladly take.

Read our review here.