Knives Out for You: Unravelling the mystery behind our obsession with whodunits

You Season 4 Penn BadgleyNetflix

Ever since Knives Out caused an explosion of interest in the old-fashioned murder mystery genre, we’ve had a flurry of whodunits emerge in its wake. There’s been Sam Rockwell starrer, See How They Run; Fletch revival, Confess, Fletch; and the horror-leaning Bodies Bodies Bodies, to name just three, all in 2022. And now Netflix series You is getting in on the action with Season 4 fully leaning into the whodunit.

Knives Out landed in November 2019, and subsequently, production companies inspired by the unprecedented success of Rian Johnson’s ensemble-cast murder mystery thriller sought to capitalize on its triumph. A recent follow-up, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, was part of a $450 million dollar two-picture sequel deal for Johnson.

Article continues after ad

But while it’s true that the current resurgence in the classic-style whodunit is in part down to the fact that yes, studios are making them, it’s also true that they wouldn’t make them if there wasn’t an appetite among audiences to sustain them.

With Netflix series You having always borrowed elements from the murder mystery genre, Season 4 Part 1 has gone full whodunit. You Season 4 part 2 premieres on March 9 having already partially wrapped up the mystery laid out in Part 1 – but what is it about the whodunit that makes it ripe right now for a revival? Why are we all so obsessed with murder mysteries?

Article continues after ad

The Adam Sandler effect

Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler in Murder MysteryNetflix
Adam Sandler (right) with Jennifer Aniston in Netflix hit Murder Mystery.

Shortly before the release of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, another whodunit with comedic overtones was making a splash – the Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston Netflix comedy Murder Mystery. This itself came in the wake of the moderately successful appetizer, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express remake, which had already reawakened audiences to the appeal of the retro murder mystery. And which itself got a follow-up – Death on the Nile – in 2022.

Critics might not have liked Sandler’s film all that much, but audiences lapped it up – just as they have pretty much consistently most Adam Sandler fare. According to Netflix, 30.9 million households watched the film in its first 72 hours of release: it was the biggest opening weekend for a film in Netflix history. A sequel is set to premiere on March 31 this year. It was becoming acceptable to admit to liking Adam Sandler again after he’d all but been consigned by critics to the best forgotten pile. This was compounded a few months later when Sandler impressed audiences and critics with his turn in the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems.

Article continues after ad

Murder Mystery further whetted audiences’ appetites for more in the same vein, and so when the mid-budget Knives Out came along five months later with its all-star cast, we were hungry for the main course and couldn’t wait to devour it. It left us wanting even more from a genre that had delivered twice on one platform in a short space of time. Dessert, anyone?

Primed by gritty whodunits

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in SevenNew Line Cinema
Morgan Freeman (left) and Brad Pitt star in David Fincher’s bleak influential cat-and-mouse whodunit, Seven.

The central premise of an unsolved murder has driven many plots over the years, and over the past couple of decades or more, a proliferation of gritty, dark mystery stories have unfolded on screen to variously grip us, horrify us, make us question the world we live in… or ultimately leave us underwhelmed or fatigued by the sense of repetition and/or unceasing murkiness.  

Article continues after ad

It arguably began with David Fincher’s Seven in 1995, in which two detectives attempt to track down a serial killer, following the clues to a tragic denouement. Seven’s success paved the way for The Bone Collector (1999), Mystic River (2003), Denis Villeneuve’s brutal Prisoners (2013) – films that all have a whodunit element at their center. More recently, series like British crime drama Broadchurch, and glossy David E Kelley series Big Little Lies have captured the attention of viewers. 

Exploring secrets, simmering undercurrents, and society’s ills underpin all of these examples but their unending bleakness opened the door for something a little lighter; a little easier to digest, perhaps. Enter the traditional whodunit.

Article continues after ad

An antidote to box office boredom

Avengers: EndgameMarvel Studios
Avengers assembled… well, some of them anyway.

There’s no question that a lot of great – and varied – movies hit screens in 2019. But that’s across the broad spectrum of platforms we now take as standard. If you looked only at theaters and the box office top 10 in 2019, you’d see the number one spot taken up by the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the unprecedented culmination of 11 years of one long comic book movie saga, Avengers: Endgame. 

Alongside it? Blockbuster sequels and remakes including three more comic-book movies – Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel, and Joker. Disney’s live-action Aladdin and the photorealistic The Lion King also make the list. As does Toy Story 4, Frozen II, Jumanji: The Next Level – and the final part of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker.

Article continues after ad

Regardless of what you thought of those films, it’s not surprising that many were experiencing a sense of ennui when it came to the big-screen guns. 2019 represented a peak in terms of franchise saturation.

In 2019, Netflix was known as a streaming platform that took chances, and allowed filmmakers and directors to make the things they cared about their way. Some projects failed, or fell by the wayside, but others – like Johnson’s Knives Out – prospered, buoyed by audiences looking for something different but also that hearkened back to a more classical that moved away from the visual effects-heavy bombastic blockbuster. The kind of production that prized intricate plotting over bangs and bucks. Knives Out channeled the roots of classic screen storytelling like Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler adaptations, and audiences were ready for it.

Article continues after ad

Escapism, escapism, escapism

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan in a still from 2022 whodunit See How They Run.Disney
Whodunits offer escapism: Sam Rockwell (left) and Saoirse Ronan in a still from 2022’s See How They Run.

Genres we’ve traditionally regarded as escapist – science fiction, comic-book adaptations, horror – have become increasingly more realistic on the one hand. Many made today offer up social commentary, and can end up feeling like gritty realism. On the other, they’ve become so self-referential that it’s difficult to simply lose yourself in the fiction, or they’re too complicated and interconnected with the larger sprawling franchise for casual fans to follow. Audiences have consequently turned elsewhere for escapism.

It’s one of the reasons the fantasy genre has exploded in recent years, with the likes of Game of Thrones, The Rings of Power, The Witcher, and Willow picking up huge followings.

Article continues after ad

The traditional whodunit evokes a simpler era, when detectives were larger-than-life personalities, characters were exaggerated archetypes, and the tone was ultimately quite fun. Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is quirky, eccentric, and kind-of funny – much like Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Similarly, Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg in You, who fulfills the role of detective in Season 4 Part 1, is as unconventional, charming, and witty as he is sharp (and deadly). All the other characters – the suspects – are, meanwhile, always personalities we love to hate.

The whole affair tends to be set within a kind of heightened reality that immerses you in it, much as you might lose yourself in a football match. It tends to draw you away from real life – even if it touches on real issues. The point is, we don’t feel a sense of threat watching any of these films or series. We don’t feel a sense of fear that what’s happening on screen could happen to us. We are always removed, watching as a spectator – a fully engaged one, but a spectator nonetheless.

Article continues after ad

Self-awareness done right

1985 whodunit Clue uses humour effectively.

There’s sometimes also a low-key self-awareness built using layers of black, or sometimes broad, comedy that adds to the entertainment factor. Think back to Clue, the 1985 cult classic, as an example that makes use of a broader style of comedy, and the Herbert Ross-directed The Last of Sheila from 1973, which is peppered with pitch-black comedy and which influenced Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion heavily.

The self-awareness in a whodunit doesn’t alienate us or tear us crudely out of the story the way a meta remark within an MCU film or series might. The MCU asks us to suspend our disbelief and join in the highs, lows, thrills, tears, and anything else it throws, so when a self-reflexive comment or reference comes it can be jarring. The whodunit in its pure form doesn’t ask us to participate in the same way….

Article continues after ad

The whodunit is an interactive puzzle

Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in You Season 4.Netflix
Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in You Season 4.

More than a passive movie-watching experience, albeit one you might be emotionally invested in, a whodunit invites you to interact with it. It encourages you to act as detective, asking you to piece together clues to work out who committed the crime.

This is escapism in itself, inspiring full engagement of your mind as the events unfold. It’s like brain training, and is more akin to an interactive game, perhaps, than a movie. You’re active rather than passive. It follows that the murder mystery genre would explode in an era obsessed with gaming, both online and off, which has come about partly in response to a collective feeling that the world is falling apart, recovering as it is from the global shutdown, and currently embroiled in war and a climate crisis.

Article continues after ad

And in this age of social media commentary and hotly discussed fan theories, the whodunit lends itself perfectly to the social media discourse. 

Cultivating the desire to conjure up fan theories is an easy way to keep audiences hooked, knowing that we have to keep watching in order to reap the rewards of the pay off. In a series like You, it works extra brilliantly because of its episodic nature. If we guess right, it makes us feel smart; if we get it wrong, we also walk away with the reward of feeling surprised, entertained, and admiring of the movie or series that confounded us. Which makes it another win-win for the audience. 

Article continues after ad

Social commentary and the whodunit

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.Netflix
Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.

Using archetypes, as the genre typically does, allows for satire that doesn’t bum us out. You takes aim at the British elite; the posh set, while Glass Onion also deftly takes potshots at the rich and privileged. But it’s all done with a sense of fun that gets the message across without compounding our misery.

Because there’s a lot of conversation about inequality and the rich exploiting the rest of us during this cost-of-living crisis we’re battling through, the whodunit is a way of highlighting contemporary issues like this without dropping us all into a pit of despair.

Article continues after ad

The divide between rich and poor is examined with a greater and greater degree of frequency these days on screen. Squid Game, The Hunt, Fresh, The White Lotus, and The Menu all have this theme at heart. It’s a subject that’s pertinent, and warrants exploration, and that will inevitably find itself within pop culture since art has always reflected the times. It needs calling out, and we need to be aware and even get mad about it – but those particular treatments of the topic can leave you feeling, well, a bit icky. 

With a whodunit, you’re too buoyed by the outcome of the central mystery to mire yourself in real-life worries. This can have a negative impact on our mental health, and speaks volumes as to why whodunits are enjoying a resurgence. Long live the good old-fashioned murder mystery! 

Article continues after ad

You Season 4 part 2 premieres on Netflix on March 9, while Murder Mystery 2 lands on March 31. For more of our You coverage, head here.