Knives Out and the everlasting appeal of the whodunit genre

What makes the critically acclaimed box office hit Knives Out so much fun? Critic Luke Buckmaster explores the unique properties of the whodunit genre, unpacking recent and old examples of great murder mysteries.

Knives Out boasts a pedigree cast – including Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans and Christopher Plummer – but its script is the real star. Writer/director Rian Johnson returns from the grand space opera of Star Wars, where auteurship becomes corporate puddy in the hands of the Emperor, to the slightly more cerebral stomping grounds of genre homages – where his feature film career began, with the clever and moody 2006 high school noir Brick.

This time Johnson’s playpen is the whodunit/murder mystery genre, which was homaged earlier this year in a Netflix film called, simply, Murder Mystery, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston as New York holidayers amusingly detached from an increasingly dramatic reality. When Agatha Christie-esque heart jiggery pokery goes down around them, the couple respond like the muppets on the balcony, providing a running commentary on their real-life entertainment – as if the scheming and killing constituted a performance engineered for their amusement.

“Can’t get this on a bus baby,” said Aniston, in the thick of a venomous monologue from a billionaire who hates his family and – as these things often go – winds up dead shortly after announcing that none of ‘em will get a dollar when he carks it. Plummer delivers a similar speech and experiences a similar fate in Knives Out. His character, the elderly novelist Harlan Thrombe, is also very rich, also intensely dislikes his money-grubbing family, and also gets minced after declaring a less than accommodating inheritance.

Playing with the ‘rules’ of murder mysteries

Johnson’s narrative is a more upfront and traditional whodunit, which means it is less upfront in some respects. Namely that there are no comical characters assuming the viewer’s role; no cynical detachment. The audience are expected to form an internal running commentary themselves, along with the interrogative elements that entails: i.e. scrutinizing motives, second-guessing character behaviour, discerning lies from truth and truth from half-truth, and pondering to what extent the filmmaker may be revealing or concealing.

The audience don’t arrive for emotionally complex characters and ruminations on the human condition; they are in it for intellectual games derived from plot architecture (which is very different to what they come for when they buy a ticket to the latest brain-bamboozling MCU movie). With these kinds of narratives certain rules are accepted, but rarely in good faith. In Christie’s brilliant And Then There Were None, for instance, the author states that there is nowhere for the characters to hide in the ultra modern mansion on the isolated rock island where the story takes place.

Christie doesn’t break that rule…technically. (spoiler for an 80 year old book coming up) There’s nowhere to hide, sure, but what if one of the corpses put in a bed was actually a person only pretending to be dead? Then there kind of is somewhere to hide.

Johnson’s most entertaining “rule” in Knives Out is that the nurse Marta (Ana de Armasas) cannot lie without chundering very soon after. Nobody cares about the plausibility of this particular plot-serving medical affliction, because we understand that it is for our intellectual amusement rather than her character’s physiological condition. But what if she’s lying about not being able to lie without being sick, and somehow forcing herself to be ill to continue the ruse? These are the sorts of thoughts that run through our minds, as we wait for a moment that will prove or disprove the theory.

The interactive qualities of the whodunit

Like many of Christie’s novels, Johnson’s screenplay is so tangly and clever a part of us suspects that we have little ability to figure it out for ourselves and might as well just surrender – because the carefully arranged cards (in a plot developed for months or even years) are so obviously stacked against us. But that never, ever stops us from trying – and nor should it. The main reason Knives Out is such a fun film is because Johnson understands this genre is interactive; the audience may be physically immobile in our seats but our minds ping-pong all over the place.

Johnson is far from the first filmmaker to cotton on to the immersive interactivity of the whodunit. Others over the years have in fact attempted to harness those qualities in order to change the nature of the viewing experience. The 1985 black comedy Clue, for instance, included three different cuts featuring three different culprits, each theatre receiving ending A, B or C. In the Australian TV adaptation of the popular board game, a live studio audience voted on who they thought the killer was, and, bizarrely, were able to interrogate the actors in character.

The most interesting whodunit released in the past few years is not, strictly speaking, a film at all – though the question of what exactly it is remains elusive. This is the virtual reality experience The Invisible Hours (available on PSVR) which is set inside a mansion, where a murder has just taken place. The viewer has the ability to follow whichever characters they like, for as long as they like, to watch a pre-determined and unchangeable narrative. The big twist is that the viewer can fast forward or rewind the story at any time. So while the overarching narrative is always the same, the sequencing differs every experience.

Shrewd jumps and timeline switches

Manipulating narrative sequencing is a key part of Johnson’s laser-focused approach in Knives Out. The writer/director shrewdly jumps between points in the timeline: first to the discovery of Plummer’s dead body, then to police interviews one week later, then to motive-establishing moments that occur pre-murder, and so forth, bouncing forwards and backwards to induce a bit of plot-based whiplash. Sometimes the timeline switches are smooth; sometimes they are intentionally jarring; often they are audacious.

In this genre, not even the tightest screws of authorship can stop the viewer’s mind from jumping all over the place, exploring many kinds of possibilities. Indeed, that is the point. The narrative is unchangeable yet the experience is interactive. This is the beauty of the whodunit – and Johnson knows it.