hey, that’s my knife!
knives out and the horror of new england fall
The moment I knew that Knives Out would be my topic of conversation for weeks wasn’t the first time I heard Daniel Craig’s dulcet take on a Southern accent, or the ending twist, or even the appearance of Chris Evans’s oversized raglan sweater. It was when our heroine finds a toxicology report with the little emblem in the top corner that reads “Norfolk County, Massachusetts”—also known as the place I’ve lived for my entire life. While I’ve been joking to people that the movie is based on my life—I’m the knife, I tell them, not the Thrombey family’s neoconservative teenage alt-righter, Jacob—it really is true that the film captured the essence of southern Massachusetts extremely well, boiling it down to one incredible throughline: a sense of being trapped.
I’ll be the first to say that Knives Out probably wasn’t intended for me. From the film’s focus on Ana de Armas’s expert portrayal of a child of undocumented immigrants to its skewering of “well-meaning” rich white suburbanites regardless of their position on the political spectrum, Knives Out isn’t exactly marketing its humor to reasonably wealthy cishet white men (and the film is made immensely better by this). Moreover, without giving too much in the way of spoilers, every piece of the film is clearly designed to make fun of murder mystery moviegoers, or at least the tropes of classic murder mysteries. The fact that the film’s victim is a mystery writer and that the main set piece is literally a bullseye made of knives, however, didn’t dissuade me from putting on my Sherlock Holmes hat. I assumed every single fact of the case was a lie and looked carefully for the ways I could be being deceived. I eagerly awaited the parlor room scene that would reveal everything I thought I knew to be an elaborate ruse. I wanted to have every single expectation subverted, and in a sense, that’s what I got. Knives Out made a point of tricking me—not into thinking I knew what was going on, but into thinking I didn’t. I constructed elaborate theories, and when the movie showed me that I’d been given the pieces all along, I had to ask myself—why did I so badly need a mystery to solve?
Norfolk County, Massachusetts includes several towns and even some cities, and among its lesser-known communities is my hometown of Sharon. Sharon is the quintessential commuter town, smack dab between Boston and Providence, originally a resort town for the rich colonial families that wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. In its current state, “sleepy” doesn’t do it justice—one could more easily call it “exhausted.” The characters of Knives Out seldom leave the family’s big, beautiful manor, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s for good reason. In that neck of the woods, there’s extremely little that would get you out of the house. Because I went to a private school (like I said—I’m undeniably the butt of Knives Out’s jokes) and therefore didn’t interact as much as I could have with the community, my view of the town might not be the most accurate—but that means I have the exact same knowledge of the area that the spoiled-rotten Thrombey family does. I was looking for familiar landmarks throughout the film, and I could swear I saw a train station I once commuted from to take ballroom dance classes with my then-girlfriend, but it could really have been any MBTA stop in the county. That’s sort of the point: There just aren’t that many landmarks in Norfolk County that allow you to distinguish one town from another. It’s generic; it’s standardized.
It was a stroke of genius to have the film take place in the autumn, because that’s when the melancholy feeling that haunts suburban Massachusetts is at its most powerful—things aren’t as beautiful or lively as one would expect, but they are stereotypically rural New England, which is to say: quiet. You can hear a twig snap for miles, and you’re much more likely to see a car passing through to break your terrifying isolation than a person who might actually be attempting to experience the world around them. The trees are beautiful, but no one who lives here actually cares enough to get outside and experience them. That’s why the claustrophobia of Knives Out resonated so powerfully with me that at first I didn’t even notice it: That’s just what New England is like in the fall. Unless, like young Meg Thrombey, you’ve got friends nearby and a way to travel some distance to them, you’re going to be stuck inside with your family.
To again attempt to explain something without spoilers, the one great reveal of Knives Out is that a character you thought you could trust is the closest thing to the crime’s mastermind. Like I said earlier, this is hardly a twist; learning that this character is evil just means everyone else was right about them. As I thought about this, I realized that, though the knives may be out, no one in the Thrombey family has a way out. For sure, they have all the privilege that money can buy—and some it can’t—but Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc refers to the family as “a pack of vultures at the feast, knives out and beaks bloody,” and no noise in the deathly quiet Norfolk County is going to drown that out. They know what monsters their family members are, and with the film’s aforementioned great reveal, we come to recognize that they know what monsters they themselves are, too. As much as the film lampoons mystery as an escape from dealing with real-world socioeconomic injustice, the Thrombeys clearly hope that patriarch Harlan’s death and even the subsequent whodunnit will serve as an escape from themselves. The twist is that we knew how horrible each and every one of them was from the very beginning; nothing was hidden, nothing was secret.
The horror of suburban Massachusetts isn’t what you don’t know, but what you wish you didn’t. This unease (and the white guilt that accompanies it) isn’t just a side theme of the film, but a crucial aspect of its setting, an invisible essence like the wind that carries the leaves down from the trees there. I love my hometown, but there’s a moment in the New England autumn, in the midst of all the talk of harvests and hunkering down for winter, that you can’t help but take stock of yourself, and if you come up lacking, there are no winter storms, spring flowers, or summer sun to distract you. When I’m faced with that, I bury myself in stories where things make a little more sense, where triumphs are a product of valor and defeats are lessons to learn or cruel plots to be outthought. Knives Out stripped that illusion away and showed me the world I grew up in exactly as it is, reminding me that no matter how far I may get from home, I’ll always have to come back to that cold, crisp look at who I am—the kind born from a Norfolk County fall.