Well, that could’ve gone better.
Harlan Thrombey, a mystery writer of renown, knew his 85th birthday party was going to be more difficult than some. Thrombey family get-togethers are always a little trying, even under ideal circumstances. It’s not that Harlan doesn’t love his family: of course he does. It’s just that all of his kids and grandkids can be … well, jerks.
Oh, overachieving eldest daughter Linda is all right, albeit a little high strung. But her husband, Richard, is something else again. Their aimless, shiftless son, Ransom, clearly takes after his pops—though Harlan has to admit that he sees of a lot of himself in the rascally scalawag, too. All the worst parts.
Harlan has worked closely with son Walt for years. He runs Harlan’s self-made publishing company, in fact. After Harlan writes a book, Walt sees that it gets to market. But let’s be honest: Harlan’s books pretty much sell themselves. Stick a trained koala in Walt’s publishing chair, and the sales wouldn’t dip.
Joni married into the Thrombey family (her husband died some time ago) and, let’s face it, her whole flower-child shtick can wear a little thin on the rest of the clan. And while Harlan dutifully pays tuition for Meg (Joni’s daughter), you’d think the girl would graduate one of these days, wouldn’t you?
Yes, Harlan knew he was going to need to have some frank conversations with his dear relations at his 85th birthday party. He said as much to his young nurse, Marta.
He never expected to wind up dead.
But there he is—sprawled out on the couch of his study, throat cut, knife on the floor, blood everywhere.
The police say it’s suicide, but Benoit Blanc—a mysterious detective who swoops onto the scene—isn’t so sure. Someone’s hiding something. In fact, several someones may be hiding several somethings.
But Blanc knows that one of them, Marta, won’t be able to hide much of anything. She literally cannot tell a lie. Or, at least, not without tossing her cookies.
Yes, Harlan Thrombey’s 85th birthday party could’ve gone better. He’ll never see another. But if Blanc has his way, someone will celebrate what would’ve been Harlan’s 86th annum behind bars.
You’re not going to find a lot of role models in this Agatha Christie-like murder mystery. Everyone has a motive to kill the old man, and most seem to have the (ahem) stomach to potentially do so. And honestly, because this is a murder mystery, I’m loathe to go into too much detail on anything. But I can say that Blanc finds someone with a good, even sacrificial, heart in the sprawling Thrombey mansion, and that heart winds up being an important part of the puzzle.
Thrombey, you could argue, administers some tough love to his more wayward family members. And while alive, he does his best to save someone from (what he sees as) an unfair fate.
Marta lives with her mother and sister, and the whole family seems to be Catholic. We see a statue of Mary in the background of Marta’s home, and a cross dangles from the dashboard of Marta’s car.
Joni chants and meditates in her bedroom.
Someone is having an affair: We see incriminating pics of a kiss. Walt’s 13-year-old son, Jacob, reveals that he was in a bathroom for quite some time (where he heard something incriminating), and some speculate that he was masturbating. (One alleges that he was doing so “joylessly” to “dead deer,” for what that’s worth.) Family members insinuate—sometimes crassly—that Marta was having sex with Harlan.
Harlan’s throat is cut: We don’t see the knife slice the skin, but a flashback still suggests the horror of the act.
Overdoses of medication are key to the story’s plot. Family members fight, mostly verbally; but sometimes the arguments threaten to crest into physical violence.
A building is burned down. A car chase leads to some minor property and vehicular damage. In the background, we hear audio from a salacious television show graphically describing a murder and the mutilation of the murder victim. We see a dead body, along with someone who’s on the verge of death.
Two f-words and nearly 30 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused at least 20 times, five of those paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused a half-dozen, too. Someone uses an obscene gesture.
Marta routinely injects Harlan with medication, including some morphine on occasion—which both jokingly refer to as “the good stuff.” (Marta tells the police that it’s a small dose that helps Harlan sleep.) Fran, the housekeeper for Harlan’s mansion, apparently smokes marijuana: We see her stash of joints, one of which Meg smokes and offers to Marta. (Marta, it seems, sometimes partakes, but she’s apparently too distraught to use this particular evening.) Characters smoke tobacco, too—both in the form of cigars and cigarettes.
Someone makes reference to Ransom using whatever “designer drug” is in fashion these days. Walt, who’s clearly drunk, talks with his father during Harlan’s birthday bash. (Other people, it’s insinuated, over-imbibe as well.) People drink wine, whiskey and champagne. Two characters sit at a pub table with several empty beer bottles.
As mentioned, Marta cannot lie without vomiting, and she becomes a de facto—and gross—lie detector of sorts. We see her toss her cookies several times, including once all over the face of another character. (In that scene, the vomit is visible; in others, we mainly hear her as she kneels over a toilet or urn or, in one case, a plastic glass.)
As you might expect in a movie built around myriad deceptions, we see many characters lie and attempt to mislead either the police or each other—sometimes going to extreme lengths to do so. Also important: The movie encourages us at times to root against the police. Family members, we learn, have taken advantage of Harlan’s financial generosity.
The Thrombey family can be offensively patronizing toward Marta, whose mother immigrated from some strangely unspecified Latin American country. (Most say she’s like part of the family, but no one knows where she actually immigrated from). Issues related to immigration, both legal and illegal, pop up often. (We hear someone express a great deal of fear that “millions of Mexicans” are, the character believes, taking over the country.) Jacob (Walt’s son) is frequently called a “Nazi.”
It says something about entertainment today that drawing room-style murder mysteries are considered pretty innocent. Never mind the dead body on the floor: Mysteries where the brilliant detective gathers all the suspects together and unveils the murderer is something your grandmother reads—and she thinks chess is too violent.
Knives Out layers on a bit more content than your typical Agatha Christie story, but only by degree, not a quantum leap into the swamp. We hear rumors and evidence of sexual dalliances, but we don’t see the dalliances themselves onscreen. Murder is, of course, part of the story—but it’s treated less graphically than a typical episode or your favorite CSI clone.
No, if I was going to gather our typical band of content culprits into a library and point to the worst of the perps, I’d jab a finger in language’s direction. “The f-word done it!” I’d shout, “And the s-word, too!” And no matter how they might profanely protest, I’d only have to play the movie over again to prove the point definitively.
Knives Out comes with a killer cast and a clever script. For fans of the murder-mystery genre—and I am, admittedly, one—this film offers its share of gratifying twists and even a rare moral of sorts. But when it comes time to cuff this flick, the charge will undoubtedly be murder most foul … words.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.