The middle finger of Benoit Blanc playing a note on a piano

Much about Blanc is mysterious and never explained.

Knives Out (2019)

🤷🏼🤷🏼🤷🏼🤷🏼🤷🏼 More than just an homage to Agatha Christie, Knives Out is a modern masterpiece of the classic whodunit.

Film Poster
Hell, any of them could have done it.





Movie info from


Knives Out does not fit the usual profile for movies I review on this site. First, it’s pretty new — only five years old, at this point. Second, it’s a high-budget film from a major studio. Third, and perhaps most important, is that Knives Out is one of my favorite movies.

It is super hard to write about movies that you like that much.

If you haven’t seen this one (you should) a little setup is in order. Mystery author Harlan Thrombey has died. Everyone, including the police, think it’s a suicide. But detective Benoit Blanc, retained to look into the matter under mysterious circumstances, is not so sure. Almost everyone in Thrombey’s family is entirely dependent on Thrombey’s wealth and literary assets, and almost all of them have motive to murder him. So who did?

Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, sitting in his room with a knife and a vial of medicine on the table in front of him.

In a story full of detestable characters, Christopher Plummer brings a complex depth to the victim Harlan Thrombey, a man who fears easy access to his fortune has spoiled his family.

Knives Out has an ensemble star cast. Blanc is Daniel Craig, making a sharp departure from his James Bond character. The cast also includes Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, and Frank Oz. Younger familiar faces in the cast include Ana de Armas as Harlan’s personal nurse Marta. Katherine Langford (from Netflix’s Cursed) and Jaeden Martell (from It) play the youngest generation of the Thrombey clan. Katherine is the white liberal feminist child Meg, Martell is the alt-right neo-fascist Jacob. Both snipe at each other over politics throughout, reflecting the atmosphere of the sputtering end of (what we desperately hope is) Trump’s single Presidential term.

Famous faces all. But every one of them has experience working in ensemble casts, and it shows. To a certain extent, it reminds me of Murder By Death, except the stars in that cast always seemed to be trying to upstage each other. Knives Out is a much more collaborative film.

Rian Johnson is laser-focused on reintroducing a modern audience to the mystery format mastered, if not precisely created, by Agatha Christie. Christie’s debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, turned 100 in 1920 but still casts a long shadow, so it‘s timely to revisit those works.

Daniel Craig as Blanc.

This is a face that says “I am listening politely to you but don’t believe a word.”

Styles was the debut of Christie’s first great detective, Hercule Poirot. The parallels between Blanc and Poirot are numerous. Poirot and Blanc are both very famous detectives. Both are welcomed by the investigating police. And both are arrogantly confident of their own abilities.

In Murder on the Links, Arthur Hastings (Christie’s Watson) asks Poirot why he doesn’t look for fingerprints or search about scientifically for clues. Poirot asks Hastings if, when fox hunting, Hastings himself runs through the woods, sniffing for scent, running down the quarry — or if he stays on his horse. Hastings of course says he stays on his horse; the other is the job of dogs.

So. You leave the work of the hounds to the hounds. Yet you demand that I, Hercule Poirot, should make myself ridiculous by lying down (possibly on damp grass) to study hypothetical footprints, and should scoop up cigarette ash when I do not know one kind from the other.

In other words, the mechanics of scientific investigation is the job of lesser minds.

Chris Evans with impossibly red lips

Having bad boy Ransom wear lipstick everywhere sets him apart from the other family members while making him very unsettling.

Blanc seems to agree.

Harlan’s detectives — they rifle and root. Truffle pigs. I anticipate the terminus of Gravity’s Rainbow… et viola, my method. I observe the facts without the biases of the head or the heart. I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.

Ethnicity and identity were part of Poirot’s story. Poirot is Belgian, but often mistaken for French. So too with Blanc. His French name and Louisiana drawl peg him (for me) as at least Creole-adjacent, but the Thrombey clan keeps putting him in random other southern states. “Shut up with that Kentucky Fried Foghorn Leghorn drawl!” says an exasperated Ransom, confusing accents five-hundred miles apart from each other, both remarkably un-French.

The Thrombeys have a lot of difficulty placing people geographically, apparently. They all have their own theory of where Marta is from. Linda (Jaime Lee Curtis) says she’s from Ecuador. Joni (Toni Collette) says Paraguay, Richard says Uruguay, and Ransom thinks she’s from Brazil. The movie never actually tells us where she‘s from, but de Armas is a Cuban of Spanish extraction.

Blanc, Armas, Stanfield talk while Armas drinks a glass of water

In a movie with a lot of star power and great performances, Ana de Armas holds her own as Marta, the nurse with a built-in lie-detector.

That brings us a bit to the themes of the film. Knives Out, like the Columbo series, explores the ground around class. Of all the members of the family, it’s arguably only Harlan who really made any money. The rest of it is all generational wealth, and the family deeply rely on his largesse and tolerance. Nevertheless, they can’t help but look down on Marta, the police, and Blanc as all being beneath them.

This is especially true of the family’s attitude towards Marta, which reflects how inauthentic the rich can be, whether liberal or conservative. All of the Thrombeys, even the right-wing ones, insist Marta is “part of the family,” but when push comes to shove their actions suggest otherwise.

Thrombey’s fantastic estate

Can you really have a whodunit without an imposing mansion and extensive grounds?

Rian Johnson is skilled enough to keep all of this as subtext. Instead, the theme is expressed through the words and actions of the characters, which keeps the film from feeling preachy. It reminds me a lot of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).

Johnson also embraces — and does not run away from — the expectations for the genre he’s chosen. You learn just enough about all of the characters to get a sense of what concerns them, what their potential for murder might be. There’s drama, but it’s all drama in service of the mystery story.

This makes it a real throwback. In a 2017 interview on the podcast Criminal, book critic Marylin Stasio complained about modern mysteries.

Oh, God, they’re getting longer! They’re so long — I don’t know why they’re so long! Yes, I do know why they’re so long… The emphasis was on the procedures of how the detective, amateur or not, went about solving this crime. Nowadays, there is a lot more hanging on the character. It’s the insertion of the author and identification of the author with the lead character and you can just go on for years in that vein…

You find out about their boyfriends, their husbands, their lovers, their kids, every last one of their kids, you watch them go to pick them up at school, drop them off, do the laundry… I liked them better when they were nice and tight and concise and had a lot more impact on me, because they were more about the puzzle and how to solve it.

Modern genre fiction of just about any stripe has been overwhelmed by these character-driven subplots, independent from the main story line. They can cause mysteries, science fiction epics, fantasy novels, and more to seem to circle the main story, never really advancing the plot. It’s almost like such stories are ashamed of the genre; they are “serious fiction.”

Marta being interviewed by Blanc in front of an art piece made of knives arranged in a circle, all pointing towards the center. Marta’s head is dead center of the piece.

While the story itself is very much Agatha Christie, the cinematography has a lot of Hitchcock flourishes.

Benoit Blanc never drops off his kids and school. In fact, at the end of the movie we don’t know anything more about Benoit Blanc than any of the other characters do. We do not see into his tortured soul. He does not have an emotional arc. If he has inner demons, he keeps them to himself. This gives plenty of room for the mystery and the puzzle — which is twisty and compelling, but arrives at a surprising but perfectly logical conclusion without cheat. It’s a master class in plots in a genre that (ought to) center plots. And it’s one of my favorite movies.