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April 19, 2023

Knives Out Breakdown

The recent resurgence of whodunit films, inspired by classic mystery writers like Agatha Christie, has captivated cinema-goers. 

Rian Johnson's Knives Out stands out as a prime example, paying homage to its inspirations while infusing the beloved genre with a 21st-century twist. This analysis delves into the film's structure and characters, offering insights for scriptwriters, particularly those interested in writing mysteries.

Knives Out and the revival of the mystery genre

Before Knives Out, the Agatha Christie-inspired "cozy" mysteries had waned in popularity, overshadowed by gritty detective stories that emphasized realism and dark psychological themes. Knives Out, however, sparked renewed interest in lighthearted yet thrilling mysteries. Rian Johnson's film retains many of the cozy mystery's elements while innovatively shifting perspectives, using irony, and making self-referential jokes.

Key characters

Let’s breakdown the key characters in Knives Out. 

Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig)

 The enigmatic detective with a keen eye for deception.

Marta Cabrera (Ana De Armas)

Harlan Thrombey's caretaker and accidental killer.

Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans)

Harlan's opportunistic and cunning grandson.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer)

A famous mystery writer and the family patriarch.

Plot breakdown

Now let's breakdown the plot of Knives Out.

Opening, setup, and inciting incident

The first act of Knives Out is structured in a nonlinear seamless fashion, organized around the interviews of the key players in the mystery, often jumping forward and backwards in time.

The main thing the audience learns is that Harlan Thrombey, the patriarch of a rich family on account of his popular detective novels, has been found with his throat cut on the day of his 85th birthday. Police believe it to be a suicide, but Benoit Blanc emerges on the scene, hired by an anonymous third party to investigate the suicide just in case.

Blanc, the incisive investigator, learns almost immediately of the strife in the Thrombey family, particularly as it pertained to his will. Marta is interviewed to, but dismissed quickly.

However, unknown to Blanc, Marta did kill Harlan. She accidentally mixed up his medicines on the night before and gave him a lethal injection. Harlan is compassionate, and knowing that undue scrutiny on Marta may result in her mother’s deportation as an illegal immigrant, Harlan decides to cut his own throat to cover for Marta and tells her exactly what to do to get away with the crime. 

Turn to two

For some reason, Blanc is interested in Marta and is keen to have her along on the investigation. Marta is reluctant because, as the killer, she is going to get in major trouble because she cannot lie without vomiting. However, refusing will only prompt more questions, so she decides to play along for the time being. 

Promise of the premise

Marta assist Blanc around the home investigating more of the witnesses and the scenes of the crime. In particular, they learn about a broken trellis, a false door leading to Harlan’s room, and multiple witnesses confirming that Harlan was alive well into the night because they saw him on the ground floor. 

This of course was exactly how Marta go away with it, using the false door and the trellis to escape and dressing up as Harlan to give her a strong alibi for when she escaped by making the timings of the murder misalign. However, Blanc is sharp, and he suspects there is more to this mystery, especially so after the arrival of Ransom, Harlan’s prodigal grandson.


The day comes for Harlan’s will to be read, so his family are quite excited, expecting to get rich. However, in a shock revelation, Harlan amended his will and left everything he owns to Marta. The family are outraged and proceed to chase Marta, but Ransom steps in and gets Marta out of there.


Ransom brings Marta to a restaurant to get her something to eat. However, his kindly veneer vanishes when it turns out he only gave her food so that there is no way she’d be able to lie without vomiting. He then asks her what happened and refuses to let her go until she confesses, which she does. 

Ransom offers to help Marta with the family and keeping the crime covered up if she gives him some of the inheritance. She agrees. 

However, they’re nowhere near out of the clear, as Marta receives a blackmail letter with a partial photocopy of Harlan’s toxicology report that will presumably reveal that he had a lethal amount of morphine in his system, implicating her. Ransom drives her to the coroner’s office which has just been burnt down. 

Marta receives an email telling her to rendezvouz with the blackmailer. However, at the rendezvous she discovers the body of Harlan’s other nurse, and the police catch both Marta and Ransom at the scene. 

Turn to three

Marta is at her lowest and intends to confess to the murder. However, with Marta’s help Blanc finds the original copy of the toxicology report that reveals that Harlan did not overdose on morphine, meaning Marta didn’t poison him, even though she thought she did. 

Finale: In a final moment back in the interviewing room, Blanc reveals what truly happened using the evidence he’s gathered. It turns out that Ransom was behind it all, incriminating Marta so that she would not be able to receive the inheritance. He was the one who hired Blanc to investigate the case and incriminate Marta. 


Ransom is arrested and Marta is able to receive Harlan’s vast wealth. The film ends with Marta watching the greedy and conniving Thrombey family leave her mansion.

Honoring conventions in Knives Out

Knives Out exemplifies the art of honoring a genre and its conventions while simultaneously introducing innovative concepts to maintain novelty. The film satisfies the audience's appetite for familiar narratives while also advancing the genre.

In any type of story, it's important for a writer to know the genre well. This helps them show love for classic stories while adding new twists that keep readers interested, even if they've seen similar stories before.

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Knives Out Breakdown
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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