To be frank, Rian Johnson feels overqualified for the whodunnit. Known for his subversive-style storytelling, Johnson has a knack for one-upping the genres he’s operating in: Brick, a high school thriller wearing a hardboiled fedora & trench coat; Looper, a time-travel movie more invested in drama than sci-fi; and The Last Jedi, an age-old good vs. evil blockbuster that transcends Chosen One tropes. With Knives Out, Johnson is back in detective mode, but the genre can’t contain his ideas or idiosyncrasies. Knives Out is flesh and blood a murder mystery, but the real hat-trick is that it’s simultaneously a satire that slyly carves its way into the beating political heart of America.
Renowned mystery writer Harlan Thrombey has turned up dead, and the great Benoit Blanc (an insanely game Daniel Craig) has been hired to solve the case. It’s a lot like Hercule Poirot being tasked with solving Agatha Christie’s murder. Which is to say Knives Out is a murder mystery that cheekily knows it’s a murder mystery right down to Trooper Wagner’s giddiness as a genre fan. By all rights, Johnson could push the meta aspects into further self-referential territory. But he’s not so much enamored with genre this time around than he is with themes of class, social status, and the non-zero-sum game of capitalism.
Harlan was the patriarch of the Thrombeys, his wealth having provided a life of unconscionable luxury for his family— an estate that is now up for grabs. His death begs the question: who had the most to gain? Knives Out interrogates who each of the Thrombeys are individually, but also interrogates why, collectively, they think they’re so much goddamn better than everyone else. (The sequence, too, is madly efficient as it not only introduces the Thrombey clan, but also establishes timeline and motives.)
Linda, Harlan’s eldest child, likes to pat herself on the back as a self-made mogul, keenly forgetting the million-dollar startup loan from her father. She scoffs at the mere mention of her younger brother Walt “running” their father’s publishing company – a thing, Linda intones, that was given to him and not earned. In-law Joni is a lifestyle guru who’s gotten too comfortable with her yearly allowance, while Harlan’s grandson Ransom, well… we’ll come back to him. All of them, nonetheless, have serious moral blinders on. And then there’s Harlan’s caregiver Marta smack dab in the middle. In a surprise turn of events, Harlan names her as beneficiary to his every last cent, and the fat cat levees break free.
Blanc may be our surrogate guide, but really this is Marta’s movie – manifested through a soulful performance by Ana de Armas. She’s already the hero for putting up with these callous buffoons, though don’t count Marta as strait-laced; she bears character tics that make her just as entertaining as she is compelling. Marta, if you can believe it, pukes whenever she lies. This gastric-lie detector might be comedic exaggeration, but it shines a light on Marta’s decency— whereas the Thrombeys do nothing but lie.
Their retorts to Marta that she’s “one of the family” at first sounds comforting. But the line is performative as it passively denigrates her to keep doing her job. The Thrombeys boast to the detectives that they’ve welcomed her into the household, yet she wasn’t allowed to attend Harlan’s funeral. (One of their own didn’t even bother to show.) “I thought you should’ve been there, but I was out-voted,” Linda and Walt say to her, and the sentiment has echoes of Get Out. They may as well say, “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time.”
As much as they keep bringing it up, none of them can correctly name the country that Marta’s family emigrated from, and it’s yet another passive attempt at marginalization. (Linda’s husband Richard earlier in the film misappropriates a certain immigrant line from a certain Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical.) They’re such snobby elitists that they allocate the extent of Marta’s place in the household AND decide whether she’s an upstanding citizen of the country. Marta’s one of them, they say, but only because she’s working for them.
The Thrombeys dare to show off how “woke” they are on various socio-political topics and it’s a glaring reveal of just how uncaring they are to those who aren’t actually, truly part of their tribe. (Topics of children in cages, Syrian refugees, and foreign-ness are more dismissed than discussed at the dinner table; if you cringe at the sheer arrogance of their responses, that’s likely the point. Because they’re not white, they’re American.) “Wokeness,” just as Get Out illustrated, is a put on, prejudice and superiority masquerading as progressivism. Meg is the most passive example of the bunch, Marta’s only confidant in the family and whom prides herself on being liberal. She supports her grandfather’s decision to handover the family’s wealth to Marta, initially. But Meg changes course when she realizes the tuition money for her liberal arts education is now threatened.
It is Meg who then tells her family about Marta’s undocumented mother, putting Marta’s family at risk while providing themselves with leverage in the tug of war for Harlan’s estate. Because everyone who isn’t them aren’t people; they’re hapless game, servants and stepping stools. (Inclusion and diversity are a virtue, to be sure, but only when it suits them.) The Thrombeys might be as dramatic as a reality series on Bravo, often clashing and telling each other to eat shit. But they find solidarity in their greed, and the act of preserving their financial empires overrides everything. Marta isn’t “one of them” anymore and the Thrombeys revert to the nationalist sentiment that’s been there all along: “Go back to where you came from.”
Marta was the only one who regarded Harlan with respect and empathy, not as a blank check to runaway riches. She’s a nurse, but that’s not what makes her a good person as Blanc interrogates early on. It’s because she works her ass off every fucking day, and not even Marta’s aware of her own steadfast diligence until a certain life-saving detail is brought to light, saved for the film’s monologue-driven climax. Marta cared for Harlan; she paid attention, while everyone else just wants to get paid. Marta’s kind heart is treated in the film as a veritable superpower that makes her stronger than freakin’ Captain America.
Chris Evans as Ransom is delicious inspired casting, a “what-if Steve Rogers went South on his democratic ideals and lavished in the game of capitalism.” There’s another, younger grandchild in the family who’s an actual alt-right dipshit, but Ransom represents the bottom of the barrel, white male privilege made manifest. He’s done nothing with his life yet feels entitled to his share for simply being born to the right family in the right country. Welcome to the new, un-ironic American dream post-2016 election, where the hardly working rule over the essential working class.
Rian Johnson lobs a storm of critiques at the upper elite because screw it, he’s here anyway, though he aims for the jugular. The Thrombeys are so entitled that they claim ancestral ownership and dominion over the very land they’re standing on, further exposing how culturally false and straight up hypocritical the knife of privilege can be. Regardless if you lean far right or left, when you’re rich all you see is up – and Johnson then twists this with brutal, satisfying irony in the film’s final shot as the Thrombeys recognize who’s on top once and for all.
Who killed Harlan Thrombey? They are plenty of knives to go around, but I won’t spoil the surprise. About halfway through the film during the most obnoxious of dinner conversations, the Thrombeys decide amongst themselves who deserves to come into the country – a country that isn’t theirs to gate-keep in the first place. Johnson instead seems to ask, who is the most bigoted and deplorable of them all?
You’re the detective. Figure it out.