Look Sharp and Get Your Knives Out

August 10, 2020 / Spark Magazine

There’s a body on the settee in the game room. An 85-year-old man lies dead with a face frozen in rigor mortis. A milky film covers the once crisp blue eyes.

His throat has been sliced open inches deep. Blood has stained his pink collared shirt and green suit and pooled on the white carpet. On the floor, blood coagulates on a large knife that surely took his life.

Harlan Thrombey has been dead for hours, and no one knew … until now. Downstairs his family still sleeps. And the killer is still in the house.

This is how the modern whodunnit “Knives Out” opens. It’s a murder mystery with a family commentary as sharp as the knife that slit Harlan’s throat.

It looks like a suicide, but it smells like a murder. Viewers are all invited to put on their Sherlock caps and get out their magnifying glasses to play amateur detective.

The mystery unfolds in a grand Massachusetts estate that could be the Clue mansion come to life. It’s like a rich great aunt’s wooded getaway if she stored a few ex-husbands’ skeletons in the closet. Stairwells creak around dark corners as dust collects on portraits, antique throw rugs, unsettling taxidermy and other oddities none more notable than a chair surrounded by a giant circle of knives that frames the head of whoever dares to sit in it.

And it’s all Harlan Thrombey’s doing. The house and the family inside it belong to the corpse on the couch. In life, he was a charming tyrant and author extraordinaire. He built a literary empire with bestselling murder mystery after murder mystery. In death, he’s the driving action in a whodunnit with a sick twist. All signs (or knives) point to a family member as a potential perpetrator. Harlan’s death is a plot he could have written himself.

Nothing speaks to the “mourning” family’s suspiciousness more than what its members choose to wear. Each costume contains a code that reveals its wearer’s station in the family. At times, the clothing speaks more to the police than the characters actually do during their interrogations. The outfits make each family or staff member as distinct as a player in the board game Clue even if no one is named as pointedly as Miss Scarlett, Professor Plum, or Colonel Mustard.

Men don muted colors in a nod to their submissive status in the family. The only man allowed to wear bold colors is the ill-fated patriarch who croaks only minutes into the movie. His combination of choices like a pink shirt packaged under a green plaid jacket reinforce his endearing eccentricity. He exists simultaneously as an iron-handed genius and a sympathetic father figure (to some), and his outfit choices reflect that dichotomy.

Like him, his daughter Linda Drysdale (née Thrombey), played by Jamie Lee Curtis, sports bold colors. She wears a monochromatic hot pink power pantsuit that establishes her dominance. Immediately, you can see she’s selling an upper class image, and we buy it.

In this trickle down system, Linda’s outfits then dictate her husband’s. Richard Drysdale dons a mauve ensemble and a purple velour jacket that looks like his wife purchased it solely to complement her look. Purple traditionally symbolizes the rich and the royal, but in this case, it belies the wealth he says he has.

The characters’ clothes scream money even though they don’t have any themselves. Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), who is not related to the late patriarch by blood, wears flowy, sheer dresses to accentuate the dollar signs in her eyes. Hugh Ransom Thrombey (Chris Evans), Linda and Richard’s son, wears a chunky cream-colored crew neck sweater that’s now the stuff of memes and viral online mockery.


Our man of the hour is private detective Benoit Blanc who is supposed to swoop in and solve our crime. He wears wide glasses, suspenders, pocket squares and a suit that stepped out of a 1940s film noir. He’s the last of the Southern gentleman detectives in a house full of WASPs. No one knows who sent for him, and no one takes him seriously … at first. He blends in when he must although he happily takes center stage at critical moments.

The closest thing we’ll have to a protagonist is Harlan’s nurse Marta. She’s the one character with actual character, and though technically she’s not family, she’s practically the only one that is. By far, she is the frumpiest of the lot, wearing an entirely forgettable wardrobe of blah turtlenecks and jeans and sneakers that’s meant to be easily eclipsed by her memorable selflessness. It’s just as well because she vomits whenever she tells a lie, and her clothes are well-stained by the end of the movie. Minor spoiler alert her shoe actually helps solve the mystery for our detective.

The vast variety of well-dressed kooky characters slinking around the house like underground rats is an ode to the crime-solving genre.

“Knives Out” winks at the audience with its unabashed whodunnit tropes and the rampant knife imagery that seems to point in accusation at passing family members. A great example is our introduction to Dt. Blanc. When we first meet him, he’s sitting in an armchair with his face shrouded in shadow at the back of the room. “Knives Out” doesn’t hide its campiness. It leans into it.

The movie is like a game of Clue if Agatha Christie were playing. There’s a real dead body in the role of Mr. Boddy, but it’s so fun you almost forget that the movie is about murder. It could be a modernized adaptation of one of Christie’s many works if it wanted to be. Even some of the titles of Harlan’s best-sellers, such as “Vulcan’s Den” and “This Little Piggy,” sound stolen from Christie’s shelf.

The plot draws inspiration from the proper mystery legend namely her “locked room” works “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express” where an impossible crime happens in one location and there’s no way the murderer could have escaped without getting caught. Or so they thought.

It’s the night of Harlan’s 85th birthday party, and the family flanks the patriarch at the dining room table. Harlan smiles at his birthday cake as he puffs to blow out the candles. But as “Happy Birthday” fills the room, the walls are closing in on one person in this estate soon to be a crime scene.

Murder is the only way out of the mousetrap that Harlan designed. Bucks are thicker than blood in this family, and murder is easy if it means money. At least the murderer will look sharp doing it. ■

Layout: Shuer Zhuo

Photography: Paige Miller

Stylist: Maya Halabi

HMUA: Cameron Kelly & Mia Carriles

Models: Grant Kanak, Julia Vastano & Kalee Sue Gore

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