Film Analysis: Knives Out

“2019 Knives Out Murder Mystery Christmas Movie 5765AA” by Brechtbug is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


I chose to analyze Knives Out because I know it well and own it, and have been interested in it for a while. I have seen a couple video essays on it, and think it’s a great film with a great cast.

Major spoiler warning for this movie. Do not continue reading if you are interested in watching it.

Film Analysis

Film Title
Knives Out
Year 2019
Rian Johnson
Genre Comedy, Crime, Drama
If you could work on this film (change it), what would you change and why? I would replace the small opening shot, that shows the house, has dramatic music and shows the dogs running across the yard in slow motion. I would keep the music, but change this one shot because I think it feels a bit out of place. I also would replace, or eliminate, the shots of some of the random things in Harlan’s house, like the masks, and dolls, because I don’t feel it contributes to anything.

As you view films, consider how the cuts, camera angles, shots, and movement work to create particular meanings. Think about how they establish space, privilege certain characters, suggest relationships, and emphasize themes. In addition to shot distances, angles, editing, and camera movement, note details of the narrative, setting, characters, lighting, props, costume, tone, and sound.

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Who is the protagonist? Marta Cabrera
2. Who is the antagonist? Ransom Drysdale, the entire Thrombey family
3. What is the conflict? Who killed Harlan Thrombey and how will they get away with it?
4. What is the theme or central, unifying concept? (summarize in one or two words) Family drama, justice
5. How is the story told (linear, non-linear, with flashbacksflash-forwards, at regular intervals) Linear with flashbacks
6. What “happens” in the plot (Brief description)? Harlan Thrombey, a father and grandfather, is discovered dead with a slit throat. The police believe it is a suicide, but they continue investigating with a private investigator who was anonymously hired. Harlan died the night of his 85th birthday when there was a big family party, so the family and his caretaker and friend, Marta, are the ones talking with the police and being scrutinized. We then find out, 30 minutes into the film, that Marta accidentally gave Harlan the wrong meds the night of the party, and Harlan devised an elaborate plot to make it look like he committed suicide to protect Marta and her undocumented mother. Marta struggles to avoid detection from the private detective, Benoit Blanc, as he frequently talks with her and trusts her, telling her he suspects foul play. He also learns, with help from Marta, that all the family relatives lied about the night of the party, and at the party, Harlan cut all of them off from his money, for various reasons, overall, wanting them to make something for themselves. We then get to the will reading, where it is found out that Harlan left everything to Marta and nothing to his family. The family quickly turns against Marta, and Ransom helps her drive off to escape them. Ransom manipulates Marta into telling him the truth and offers to help Marta keep this from getting out, in exchange for his cut of the inheritance, when Marta explains that she thinks Blanc is on to her, and she got a blackmail letter with the photocopied header of a toxicology report on Harlan, that would prove her guilt. Ransom and her drive to the lab and see that it is up in flames. Blanc spots them, and Marta drives away, resulting in a car chase where they are caught. Ransom is taken into police custody, and Marta is still presumed innocent. Blanc rides with Marta to go to the station, and she stops on the way to keep her appointment with the blackmailer, leaving Blanc in the car. She discovers Fran, the other housekeeper for Harlan, who is shot up with morphine and near death. Marta calls 911, caring more about Fran’s life than her inheritance. It is then revealed, to the police and Blanc, the true story of what happened with Marta. Marta insists on going back to the house, to tell the family the truth, and renounce the inheritance. When she gets there, she shows Blanc where Fran stashed the toxicology report and then starts to tell the family the truth. Before she can tell them, Blanc, who opens the toxicology report to read in the background, steps in to tell the family that Marta will not be denouncing the inheritance, and shame on them for trying to manipulate her. He leads Marta, who is very confused, away, and with the police officers there, starts explaining. Halfway through his talk, a police officer brings Ransom in. Blanc explains that the toxicology report came up normal. Ransom switched the medical vials, and took away the life-saving antidote, meaning that when Marta switched them, she switched them back. If she would have called the police instead of going along with Harlan’s plan, he would still be alive. Ransom was the one who hired Blanc anonymously, wanting Marta’s “guilt” to be uncovered. Ransom was responsible for Fran being shot up with morphine, for the blackmail letter, the medical building burning, everything. Marta has really committed no crime, while Ransom is guilty of arson and attempted murder. Ransom then grabs a knife and tried to kill Marta, but it turns out to be a prop knife. He is arrested, and the loose ends are all wrapped up.
7. How does the film influence particular reactions on the part of viewers (sound, editing,
characterization, camera movement, etc.)? Why does the film encourage such
The soundtrack for this film is very dramatic, which creates suspense in a way that invited intrigue and suspense without fear. This suspense is typical of the murder mystery genre and keeps people watching and extremely interested, knowing that everything will be explained and wrapped up (and the killer found) in the end. In certain flashbacks, where are also given different pieces of information visually, storywise, and soundwise. For example, in one flashback, we see Harlan talking with his son, but we do not hear what they are saying, as the family member being questioned at that time did not know what they were saying. We later see the same scene, but we hear what they are saying and continue with those two characters because it’s a flashback from Harlan’s son. The editing is essential, as the sequencing and what is revealed to us when is very important to the film. You can see my blog post on the twist of Knives Out for a deeper dive into this, but the summary is that if the information and clues were given to us in a different order, the twist wouldn’t make as much sense, and would be too hard or too easy to guess. Characterization is also vital to this movie, as it gives us disgust and empathy for certain characters and reasons for what is happening.
8. Is the setting realistic or stylized? What atmosphere does the setting suggest? Do particular objects or settings serve symbolic functions? The setting is realistic, taking place mostly in a large house, and at other times a realistic-looking world. The atmosphere that is suggested is suspenseful, as this house is big, possibly full of secrets, and it is where the characters, who are suspects, all gather together. Knives in the movie serve a symbolic function.

“Harlan Thrombey : [Talking to his caretaker, Marta Cabrera, about his nephew, Ransom Drysdale] There’s so much of *me* in that kid. Confident. Stupid. I don’t know… protected. Playing life like a game without consequences.

[Grabs a knife out of a nearby display stand]

Harlan Thrombey : Until you can’t tell the difference

[pauses and takes the knife out of its sheath]

Harlan Thrombey : between a stage prop… and a real knife.

[Stabs the table in front of him with the knife blade; the knife remains upright]” (IMDb)

This is the knife that Harlan kills himself with, and later in the movie, Ransom tries to kill Marta with a knife he grabs from Harlan’s collection (shown below) which turns out to be a prop. This turns this symbolic line into a literal one. Harlan was also the author of many bestselling mystery books, so he had a great sense of drama, as you could see from things around his house relating to his books, including this collection of knives behind the chair. This is where the family is interviewed, so it serves a symbolic purpose, and as a reminder of Harlan and his work throughout the movie. His daughter says once in the movie that it doesn’t feel real, and it feels like something Harlan would write, or do. She doesn’t know that she is partially correct, as Harlan did commit suicide to protect Marta and her family.

9. How are the characters costumed and made-up? What does their clothing or makeup reveal about their social standing, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or age? How do costume and makeup convey character? The Thrombey family is costumed and made up in nicer, rich clothing. It is clear that they have money and are well off.  In contrast, Marta wears plainer clothing that reveals she is of a lesser social status. Marta is not white,  and she lives with her illegal immigrant mother and her sister in an apartment. Marta is also younger than most of the Thrombey’s, and because of all this they look down on her. The costuming and makeup of the Thrombey family reinforce their wealth, status, and the belief that they are better.
10. How does the lighting design shape our perception of character, space, or mood?
11. How do camera angles and camera movements shape our view of characters or spaces? What do you see cinematically?
12. What is the music’s purpose in the film? How does it direct our attention within the image? How does it shape our interpretation of the image? What stands out about the music?
13. How might industrial, social, and economic factors have influenced the film? Describe how this film influences or connects to a culture? This film was released around Thanksgiving. Thankgiving is an American tradition where families come together, and it’s mainly looked upon as good, but this provides a different perspective on an arguably objectively horrible and certainly dysfunctional family coming together. This also exhibits class differences, political differences, and how people like the Thrombey’s feel they have a right to wealth.
14. Give an example of what a film critic had to say about this film. Use credible sources and cite sources.Example: “The Shawshank Redemption Movie Review (1994) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2015.
15. Select one scene no longer than 5 minutes that represents well the whole film and shows relevant cinematic elements. Write a one-sentence description of the scene and record the time of the scene.Example: from 1:05:00 to 1:10:00.Explain why you chose this scene. PLACE THE TIME STAMP FROM THE SCENE HERE… Example: 00:00:00 – 00:05:00
16. In the selected scenewrite a sentence for each of the elements below to justify why this scene best represents the film:
a. Screenwriting:
b. Sound Design:
c. Camera Movements/Angles:
d. Light Setup:
e. Soundtrack/Score:
18. What’s the socio-cultural context of this film?

This worksheet was developed with ideas from many IB Film teachers, thus should remain in the Creative Commons

Mr. Le Duc’s Film Analysis Resources

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