Knives Out was easily my favorite movie I saw in 2019. I'm a sucker for a good mystery, lavish set design, and biting social commentary, particularly when it plays with form as much as Knives Out does. I saw it twice, the first time hooked by the premise and carried along on exhilaration, the second
Knives Out was easily my favorite movie I saw in 2019. I’m a sucker for a good mystery, lavish set design, and biting social commentary, particularly when it plays with form as much as Knives Out does. I saw it twice, the first time hooked by the premise and carried along on exhilaration, the second piecing together the intricacies of the story, how deftly it’s woven to misdirect the viewer (especially white viewers) by appealing to our socially ingrained biases. I loved every minute of it.
And yet, I don’t know if I want a sequel.
The remainder of this article will contain heavy spoilers for Knives Out.
Knives Out centers on the circumstances of successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) death. The family’s housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), finds him dead in his room, his throat slit in an apparent suicide, but private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) receives a mysterious summons to investigate.
We quickly learn that every member of the family has a reason to want Harlan dead—they’ve been cut off from allowances, fired from his publishing house, or exposed as a cheater. But the real killer, entirely by accident, is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse; she accidentally gave him an overdose of morphine. Wanting to protect Marta and her undocumented family, Harlan slits his own throat.
But Marta isn’t a criminal mastermind—she’s unable to even lie without vomiting. It’s mostly through luck and Harlan’s machinations that she’s able to evade capture, until it’s revealed that Harlan has signed over his entire estate to her. The Thrombey family, who previously assured Marta they’d take care of her, immediately turns on her and she’s forced to go on the run. With help from Harlan’s grandson, Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans)—and a little extortion—it seems like she’ll get away with it.
Except Ransom, who agrees to help her in exchange for a portion of the fortune, sells her out just like the rest of his family. Marta unknowingly gathers the clue that will seal her innocence—the complete toxicology report, revealing that Harlan had the correct morphine dose and died by his own hand—and begins to confess. Blanc interrupts, having read the toxicology report and deducing that Ransom has framed her. Marta is able to extract a confession from Ransom, revealing that he swapped the medicine bottles and she, being a skilled nurse, picked the right bottle without looking at the label. Ransom is arrested, the family’s various sins are exposed, and Marta inherits the Thrombey estate, as written in Harlan’s will.
Since the movie’s release, there have been rumblings of a sequel, demands to see Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a mysterious, Southern-accented private detective, lead a new mystery. A sequel was announced on February 6, with Daniel Craig reportedly attached.
Though many are excited for a return to the film, others expressed trepidation. One response to the more hesitant murmurs came from Scott Wampler, news editor of BirthMoviesDeath, who wrote:
I have seen one or two folks who seem skeptical of a KNIVES OUT sequel and I just need to make sure we're all on the same page about how the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot books worked
— Scott Wampler™ (@ScottWamplerBMD) February 6, 2020
The implication here is that people who express hesitation about a Knives Out sequel don’t understand the genre. Mystery stories are often self-contained, with a singular detective being the continued thread throughout a franchise. Each self-contained story may have its own unique cast of characters—some of whom may return à la Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty—who have their own character journeys. Knives Out 2 could easily carry on that tradition, especially because the first film is such a contained story.
There’s one major problem: Benoit Blanc is nowhere near the protagonist of Knives Out. He barely does any sleuthing, aside from noticing a blood spatter on Marta’s shoe that clues him in that she knows more than she’s letting on. His biggest revelation is that something is wrong with the story as he understands it—the famous donut hole analogy—and his major contribution is to actually read the toxicology report, unlike Marta, who is so convinced of her own guilt that she’s ready to confess. He’s charming, interesting, and essential to the story, but his best feature is that he stands aside to let Marta be the hero of her own story, only assisting with the toxicology report.
Of course, mysteries can be successful with less than effective detectives. But there’s an additional wrinkle to Knives Out that makes a sequel much trickier—the mystery works as a fun, thrilling puzzle to be unlocked, but what makes the film resonant is its commentary on racism.
Marta won’t just go to jail if she’s discovered—her family will be deported. And all those supposedly well-meaning white folks in the Thrombey family are quick to throw her under the bus when it comes to losing their wealth. They call her family, but can’t remember where she comes from. They hold her up as an example of a “good” immigrant who does things “the right way,” not knowing her family is undocumented. Even Meg (Kathryn Langford), the liberal arts student who calls out her family’s racism, rats Marta out when her family asks her to because she and her family will be forced to (gasp!) work for what they have rather than just have it.
Knives Out takes no prisoners in its critique of white privilege. And yet, the calls for a sequel hinge on the return of Benoit Blanc—the man whose name can be literally translated to mean “white.”
My hesitation with a Knives Out sequel is not that I don’t understand how the mystery genre works, nor even that every original film becoming a franchise is a thorn in my side (though it is). The film is a critique of white privilege. When we fixate on the white man, we miss what made the movie special—that it’s not just a murder mystery, it’s a murder mystery informed by the myriad ways white supremacy manifests, including everything from outward, hostile racism to the more insidious notions of how white people see themselves as deserving of everything they have because of hard work, nevermind their generational wealth.
Even if that element of critique is present in Knives Out 2 with Benoit Blanc as the protagonist, we have another problem: we now have a franchise that more or less hinges on a white man saving oppressed people from their oppression. Even if Blanc didn’t solve the mystery in the first film—he just conveniently read the toxicology report—the fact that our collective desire for a sequel warrants the return of Blanc and not Marta or Elliot or even a different detective should tell us something. If we’re so fixated on the lovable white detective that we ignore the potential return of one of the characters of color, if we so dearly want a sequel that continues the social critique that made Knives Out such a powerful film but only want it to come from a white messenger, have we actually understood and internalized the message it was trying to send?
The idea of a film franchise built on a white man continually sweeping in to save marginalized people from their oppressors is something best left in the previous decade, even if the bulk of the mystery-solving is left to those experiencing the oppressing. Much as I love the way that Knives Out develops, with Marta’s moral compass leading her straight through amoral chaos and Blanc’s detective work only serving to bolster her when she can no longer believe in herself, turning that into a franchise robs it of its power. If what makes the film more than a murder mystery is its social commentary and we make Blanc the connecting thread rather than Marta, there is potential for a Knives Out franchise to become an ongoing white savior story.
Rian Johnson is one of my favorite living directors and I’ve loved every one of his films that I’ve seen. I believe that any sequel he has a hand in will likely work, and will almost certainly be just as vicious in its attack on the privileges of the wealthy and white as Knives Out—there’s certainly room to do so, especially given Blanc’s whiteness and authority, as well as his coded name.
But a film being good doesn’t mean that it is free from criticism, and people who are concerned about a potential sequel have a variety of reasons to feel that way, many of them having absolutely nothing to do with the genre. Johnson could absolutely create a brilliant mystery film without the biting social commentary, but that wouldn’t be Knives Out 2.
To truly succeed, a sequel needs to capture both the thrilling mystery and the critique, and while Johnson is certainly capable of doing so (or Knives Out wouldn’t have been the success it is), that so many purported fans of the film seem to have missed the point entirely tells us that a sequel must be even clearer than the first film.2 comments