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Knives Out Marks a Win for the Original Murder-Mystery Genre

Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Noah Segan, and Lakeith Stanfield in Knives Out Photo: Claire Folger/Lionsgate

Over its long opening weekend in theaters, the murder-mystery Knives Out thrust a dagger into prerelease ticketing estimates that low-balled the film’s five-day box-office take at between $20 million to $25 million. Instead, the Rian Johnson–directed ensemble whodunit nearly doubled industry “tracking” predictions, hauling in an estimated $41.7 million domestically, to become one of the top-grossing original, live-action films ever to debut during the Thanksgiving corridor. That makes it an outlier during a period of Hollywood hand-wringing and tumult defined by declining theatrical attendance and proliferating streaming services — when mega-budget sequels, spinoffs, and reboots have all but slashed the jugular of mid-budget movies at the multiplex.

Coming in as the highest-grossing new film in wide release, Knives Out was nonetheless iced out of the top spot by Walt Disney Animation’s Frozen 2, which continued to generate a blizzard of cash in its second weekend in theaters. The animated musical, which follows the continuing adventures of Queen Elsa, Princess Anna, and Olaf the snowman, set a new Thanksgiving weekend box-office record by taking in an estimated $123.7 million in North America from Wednesday through Sunday (easily surpassing the $109.9 million high-water mark established during the same theatrical period by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in 2013).

Nonetheless, the overperformance of Lionsgate’s $40 million-budgeted Knives Out is being hailed as an underdog victory. The film is being greeted as an old-fashioned, Agatha Christie–esque antidote to the major studios’ perceived overreliance on cinematic universes and films based on or even adjacent to established intellectual properties. (This just two years after director Kenneth Branagh broke through the November box office with his $352.7 million-grossing adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.) At a time when November ticket sales are taking a 27 percent year-over-year nosedive, Knives Out suggests that original additions to the murder-mystery genre can still slay moviegoers.

“Audiences have an enormous appetite for original stories well told,” said Joe Drake, chairman of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, in an email to Vulture. “Even in this era of franchises and brands, they value originality and creativity and when you deliver a truly theatrical experience, they will put the movie on their back and show up like they did for Knives Out.”

Written, directed, and co-produced by Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi filmmaker Johnson, the idiosyncratic, keenly self-aware Knives Out stars Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, a gentlemanly private detective hired by an anonymous benefactor to leave no clue unturned in the slashed-throat death of best-selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The apparent suicide (or is it murder?) occurs on the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday celebration, attended by the patriarch’s extended, entitled, exquisitely combative family. Each son, daughter, in-law, and ex-in-law carries their own respective ax to grind — meaning each has ample motive for murder. But impossible to ignore, and simmering just beneath the movie’s hairpin plot twists, there’s a whip-smart undercurrent of class tension. Ana de Armas, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Colette, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and a chunky-knit-clad Chris Evans round out the ensemble cast.

“I suspect that Johnson, an adolescent genre enthusiast to his core, has waited since age 10 to make a movie like this,” Vulture’s David Edelstein opined. “His enjoyment is contagious, even for those of us who don’t think Knives Out quite hits its marks. We respond to his bravura — the exuberant thrust.”

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to a raft of positive reviews, Knives Out parlayed Rian Johnson’s newfound renown as a top-tier filmmaker into strong word-of-mouth buzz. From there, the positive critical appraisals kept coming. By its debut weekend, Knives Out had unsheathed a 96 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, after five days in release, the film can also add an A- Cinemascore to its bragging rights.

On the heels of John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum, Angel Has Fallen, and the World War II historical thriller Midway last month, Knives Out stands as the latest in a string of 2019 Lionsgate releases to exceed box-office expectations. “This is a movie that had all the right elements: an amazing cast led by an enormously talented writer and director who reinvented the mystery genre in a way that was exciting fresh and fun,” Drake says. “Once we started showing it, word traveled fast that it was the holiday film you shouldn’t miss.”

Knives Out Marks a Win for the Original Murder-Mystery Genre