Knives Out: A Whodunit Like No One Has Ever Done It

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Whodunits: when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? When Rian Johnson’s 2019 film Knives Out was released, it was advertised as a “whodunit like no one has ever done it.” There is a clear structure to the whodunit. A large group of people (usually all played by recognizable actors) are gathered for an event and one of them is murdered. Everyone is a suspect and a detective comes along to neatly unravel the mystery. But Knives Out isn’t just a quintessential whodunit story. It’s a postmodern take on a genre many thought outmoded.   

Most scholars agree postmodernism most scholars is difficult to define due to its multifaceted nature. It’s essentially an umbrella term to encompass an aesthetic movement that seeks to reject modernism. Some find the movement to be about self-reflexivity in terms of generic conventions, while others find it to be more about intertextuality.  

Both apply to Knives Out, a film that adopts those core tenets of postmodernism to make it appear both familiar and foreign to audiences. While Knives Out maintains the aesthetic conventions and genre tropes of a classic whodunit film, it is a fresh postmodern take on the mystery which has been the bold catalyst for a renaissance of whodunit films, revitalizing the genre and kicking off a new and exciting franchise. 

Thrombey family gathered in an ornate living room all looking forward.
The Thrombey family of Knives Out. Photo: courtesy of Lionsgate.

Establishing Genre  

While offering a self-reflexive commentary that’s fundamentally postmodern in nature, Knives Out deploys many of the semantic elements of the whodunit. The semantic elements are what Rick Altman finds are crucial to defining genre. In his essay “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” Altman claims that, “We can as a whole distinguish between generic definitions which depend on a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets, and the like—thus stressing the semantic elements which make up the genre.” Essentially Altman is saying is that we define genres by identifying their common elements. Some examples of these elements within whodunits include an ensemble cast of famous actors, an acclaimed gentleman detective, and an eerie old lavish mansion as the primary setting. These are general characteristics but many films within the genre will have these elements, and the audience expects to see them in their whodunit.  

Knives Out closely adheres to these specific and recognizable elements, making it a clear entry into the whodunit genre. The gothic mansion is filled with books and lavish trinkets. Johnson gives us a fuller picture of the estate by adding quick shots of various props and knickknacks between scenes. There is little use of modernized technology. Our detective relies on his trusty magnifying glass, while the police use their phones for pictures. There are no modern murder weapons or even a gun, instead, a simple knife is the weapon of choice throughout the story. The act of a modern-day mystery so rooted in past visual aesthetics of the genre creates an element of postmodernism that’s new to whodunits.  

Knives Out adheres to these syntactic elements of a whodunit, per Altman’s definition of the term. He says in his essay on genre theory, “The syntactic approach surrenders broad applicability in return for the ability to isolate a genre’s specific meaning-bearing structures.” In other words, the syntactical elements look at a film’s deeper meaning and overlying structures. Knives Out contains these same recognizable themes found within many stable stories of the genre: suspense, a battle between good and evil, and a fear of the unknown. Johnson’s film adheres to these syntactical elements clearly. Marta (Ana de Armas) and the Thrombey family are strong representations of good versus evil. Marta is always known for “having a kind heart” while the Thrombeys lie, steal, and cheat for their own self-righteousness.  

Not only does Knives Out have each of these elements due to its firm roots within the genre, but it introduces new thematics more pertinent to a modern audience: class disparities, racial tensions, and challenging old ways of thinking. Marta is a second-generation lower-class immigrant who is treated as lesser by the Thrombey family even though they continuously say she is “part of the family” and that they want to “take care of her.” This commentary on the modern political climate (or at least that of 2019) creates a postmodern telling of a genre so rooted in the past. Additionally, the film contrasts the whodunit genre’s long history of white-centric stories, by having its lead be a young Latina woman. By both taking efforts to be created to look and feel like a classic murder mystery and provide modern and topical commentary, Knives Out manages to be different from anything released before it. 

On the surface Knives Out is just a murder mystery, but there is a moment approximately forty minutes in when a shift occurs. The first forty minutes are spent establishing what happened the night of Harlan Thrombey’s demise as told from the perspective of each family member, but only when we hear from Marta do we get what truly happened. There is a nonlinear approach to backtrack and see the story from everyone’s perspective to create a whole picture and allow the audience to see all the clues themselves, letting them play detective. Since Johnson and his audience are familiar with the ways a whodunit is supposed to look and feel like, he can deconstruct these conventions to create something new, thus shifting audience expectations in the growing genre 

Long shot of Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) looking back at the camera with the Thrombey estate framed in the background
Ana de Armas as Marta in Knives Out. Photo: courtesy of Lionsgate.


One of the core ideas of postmodernism is that in a world with a surplus of media, films cannot help but reference other texts; in this manner, Knives Out is a film that is indebted to the long legacy of the whodunit and detective fiction genres. 

Using both parody and pastiche, Rian Johnson creates an intertextual look at the whodunit genre in his film Knives Out. One of the ways filmmakers can create intertextual works is by parody in their films. Parodic works use intertextuality to play with generic conventions. Knives Out freely plays with the conventions of the whodunit genre, even to the point of blatantly satirizing them. One way the film achieves this is through the detective character of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). This character is a play on the gentleman (often British or European) detective. In this film our sleuthing detective is not British or met with some ambiguous European accent, but rather has a southern “Kentucky fried foghorn leghorn drawl.” This is met with some irony in the fact that Craig the actor who plays him, is in real-life British. The fact that a British actor who is known for suave gentleman roles like that of James Bond, is cast as a blundering southern detective satirizes the traditional notion of gentlemen detectives found within whodunits. In this way Knives Out creates new humor while also harkening back to established imagery.   

More so, Knives Out favors homage over irony. Like parody, pastiche requires respect and appreciation for the source material. Knives Out is deeply rooted in classic whodunit styles that harken back to familiar favorites of the genre, using nostalgia to draw in audiences who have an appreciation for the classics. The film’s setting is iconic, the Thrombey family is quintessential, and the financial motive we have seen before. It is all familiar to audiences well acclimated with the genre. By combining all these familiar elements Knives Out feels like a classic and uses nostalgia to target and hold an audience.  

But these overlaying elements are not the only aspects of the film that categorize it as a pastiche. A love of whodunits and murder mysteries are ingrained into the characters, the script, and the set. Fran loves the Hallmark movie Deadly by Surprise and talks about it often. Marta’s mother is seen watching the show Murder She Wrote. Harlan is a well-known murder mystery author. Trooper Wagner is a huge fan of Harlan’s books. Nearly all the characters have a love of the genre. The film, a murder mystery itself, nearly bursts with references and indications towards other works, creating a meta-ness to it as a film that feels both deeply rooted in the genre and acutely self-aware of itself as a genre film. This inherent awareness of the genre it exists within is a postmodern self-reflexivity that sets the film apart from other whodunits.  

In recent years, the genre of the whodunit has encountered something of a renaissance. In the past year alone there have been several whodunit films which have been released including Death on the Nile (2022); Glass Onion (2022); See How They Run (2022); Confess, Fletch (2022) and this is not even taking television shows into consideration. With a surplus of entries into the genre, there is plenty of room for commentary and deconstruction, paving the way for more self-reflexive stories to be told. 

With its doughnut metaphors and cable knit sweaters, Knives Out is a fundamentally postmodern take on the classic whodunit genre. It is semantically and syntactically similar to the earlier iterations of the genre but deconstructs its tropes and provides bold political commentary of America in 2019 setting it apart from other whodunits. Intertextually, it references past films and literature that have become pillars of the murder mystery. With Knives Out, Rian Johnson has revitalized the genre which has allowed a space for more well-made and generically rooted films to be self-reflexive. Knives Out has cracked the case on how to do a whodunit, kickstarting a renaissance of mystery stories.  

Written by Cassandra Bauer

Cassandra Bauer is the film critic for The Winonan. Besides watching endless movies, Bauer likes going to local coffee shops, attending yoga classes, and reading celebrity memoirs. She also loves spending time with her friends, working at the movie theater in her hometown, and playing tennis.

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