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Courtesy of Lionsgate

December 2, 2019

YANG | ‘Knives Out’ and the Concept of Genre

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I’ve loved mystery since I was a kid. When I was eight, I got a set of vintage Chinese comic books from my mom, among which were some of the most famous Sherlock Holmes stories, abridged and transformed into pictures. I distinctly remember reading the comic version of The Hound of the Baskervilles one night when I couldn’t sleep, only to end up terrified and even more awake — and maybe just a little bit in love with detective stories. My mom later introduced me to Agatha Christie novels and Alfred Hitchcock films, and I went on to discover Japanese detective fiction and American crime TV shows. In recent years, however, non-adapted detective stories have become nearly extinct in films. As much as I loved Sherlock, I didn’t realize that what I really wanted was to see original murder mysteries on the big screen.

So all this is to say that I’d been looking forward to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out since October of last year. The extended period of anticipation set my expectations sky-high, and as it turns out, the movie is everything that I’d hoped it would be, but also so much more. Beyond neatly executing a textbook example of the “whodunit” narrative structure, paying tribute to old-school mysteries both in terms of writing and production, Knives Out is a carefully balanced blend of comedy and political satire, subverting and transcending the perceived limitations of its genre.

This is truly no easy feat, since a number of films in recent years have exhibited a sort of ambition to have it all, but in my opinion, few have actually succeeded. I spent a long time trying to figure out what they got wrong that Johnson got right, and it took seeing the movie a second time to figure it out. The answer turned out to be deceptively simple: storytelling comes first.

The story at the center of Knives Out is the apparent suicide of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a world-renowned mystery writer, on the night of his 85th birthday. Not long after, private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) was hired anonymously to investigate the case while the Thrombey family gathered for the memorial and more importantly, the will reading. Blanc soon finds out — as should surprise no one — that Harlan’s “suicide” was not so simple after all.

The relationship between the Thrombey family and Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), is the focus of the movie’s political commentary. Marta is Hispanic, but the audience never manages to find out where her family is actually from since every member of the family references a different country. At one point, the family gets into a heated argument about undocumented immigrants, and Richard, who made an “immigrants: we get the job done” reference from Hamilton earlier in the movie, pulls Marta into the discussion as a stellar example of legal immigration, then proceeds to hand her dirty dishes even though she is not a housekeeper. Meg, the granddaughter mocked by her cousin as an “SJW” for her liberal views, is the only one who knows about Marta’s mom’s undocumented status, yet she betrays her to the whole family when they ask for blackmail material. And without actually spoiling too much, the murder itself, in the end, is as much about the inheritance as it is about racial and classist entitlement.

None of these nuances are spelled out in neon letters — they’re instead made inseparable components of the story itself, existing not for the sake of giving the movie a “deeper meaning,” but rather to support the narrative and give characters dimension. On the flip side, while the “whodunit” plot itself isn’t overly complicated compared to some that I’ve read, it’s still tightly constructed, serving as a strong foundation upon which something more complex is built.

And that’s the real crux of it: Don’t try to run before you could walk. Whether it’s getting political for the sake of being “relevant,” attempting to add as much fanservice as possible or pursuing the shock value in some big moment and in the process losing sight on the very basis of a story, all are dangerous paths that, unfortunately, a lot of recent blockbusters have gone down. The end of the path may be a successful box office hit, but there definitely will not be a good film.

The way we talk about “transcending genre” makes “genre” sound like a bad thing. But at the end of the day, they are just stories, and any of them have the potential to be anything. The way to achieve depth and meaning, however, is not to shove in a half-formed political message, reverse-engineer the plot and the characters to represent certain values or worldviews, but to simply tell the story well. The rest will follow.

 

Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.