2019’s Knives Out is a murder-mystery whirlwind of a movie, written and directed by Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi, Looper). Inspired by the many works of Agatha Christie, Johnson sought to create his own whodunnit story… in his own special Rian Johnson-y way. Namely, by throwing convention and expectations out the window in favor of subversive self-reflection and satire.
This strategy doesn’t always lead to universal applause.
As you may recall with 2017’s The Last Jedi, Johnson employed this to the Star Wars franchise. He turned Luke Skywalker into a grumpy recluse who still hasn’t triumphed over his own dark side. The trifecta of swashbuckling heroes established in J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens all fail in their missions by the end of the film. Yoda sets the last books of the Jedi Order on fire. The big bad Supreme Leader Snoke gets dispatched of quite unceremoniously. All the while, many fans were just interested in space battles, sword fights, and good guys saving the day. While this earned critical praise, it turned off a portion of movie-goers.
Rian Johnson’s inclinations towards subverting expectations are still seen in Knives Out. However, this movie didn’t have a built-in obsessive fanbase. That made the job of twisting the murder-mystery genre relatively harmless, and allows audience members to experience this satire with unbiased eyes. With all this being said, Knives Out is a film about power at it’s center. There are all these elements swirling around: mystery, suspense, comedy, etc. But it all connects to the central theme… almost like a donut.
Let’s take a look at it’s plot. Acclaimed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) suddenly died in his room on the night of his 85th birthday. It appears to be a suicide, but Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is suspicious. The entire family, played by wonderfully talented actors, all seem to have a vested interest in taking the patriarch’s fortune. Each member is so deeply entrenched in their own sense of entitlement that they don’t even recognize just how privileged they are. Not one of them has gotten to their place in life without the financial support of the rich grandfather.
For example, his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) owns her own real estate empire, of which she is very proud of. But it is revealed that she got her start from a million dollar loan from Harlan. The son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is the handpicked owner of Harlan’s publishing company, and is not at all responsible for its day-to-day operations. And there’s the daughter-in-law, Joni, who has been living off the family for years since her husband died. There are other members of the Thrombey clan, but for now it should be clear that these are talentless, selfish leeches.
It becomes clear that the only one Harlan ever trusted was his nurse and caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas). Everyone, with the notable exception of Marta, is played up as over-the-top caricatures. Detective Blanc is a ridiculously confident Southern gentleman who sticks out like a sore thumb. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) is an obvious send up of upper-crust conservative Trump supporters who are oblivious to their own racist thoughts. This really eases us into rooting for the everywoman Marta, even with her quirk of vomiting at the mere thought of telling a lie.
The first act prepares us to get ready for a classic whodunnit… until it switches to Marta’s perspective. As it turns out, she believes that she accidently killed Harlan due to a mix up of medications. Harlan, in an act of protecting Marta, makes his death look like a suicide by slitting his own throat. This is all revealed within the first half, and just like Rian Johnson, our idea of a murder-mystery gets flipped around.
Now, we are sympathizing with the accidental killer who is too pure to lie. As she plays Watson to Detective Blanc’s Sherlock, we stop seeing the PI as the protagonist, earnest as his intentions might be. We don’t want Marta to be sent to prison for a mistake, nor do we want her undocumented mother to be deported as a result. Let’s recap the themes here:
1. We have a family of privileged, spoiled rich kids trying to get a piece of their murdered patriarch’s wealth. Turns out that while many of them could’ve murdered him, none of them did. Or so we see right now.
2. We have the perpetrator, who is actually the most moral, kind, and loving person in the movie. She is a poor caretaker who comes from an undocumented immigrant family.
3. We have a Southern detective poking around the estate in the middle of Somewhere, New England.
The, uh, knives really start to come out once Harlan’s will is read. Keep in mind that throughout the first act of the movie, the family’s attitude towards Marta ranged from dismissiveness to polite cordiality. A running joke is that they never bothered to ask where her family comes from (Ecuador? Uruguay? Brazil?) Richard attempts to use her as an example of “good immigrants” who don’t cross the border illegally. Marta is friendly with the other “help”, Fran (Edi Patterson) and Joni’s supposedly woke daughter Meg (Katherine Langford).
This all changes when it is revealed that all of Harlan’s fortune, possessions, properties, and companies were bequeathed to Marta! Like a switch, all of the Thrombeys turn on her. Even Meg tries to convince her to relinquish the inheritance; after all, her tuition money for her fancy college is going to disappear. When a phone call fails, she outs Marta’s mother as undocumented. So much for friends.
The film then turns from a whodunnit into a suspense thriller, just as she is rescued by the gloriously apathetic black sheep of the family, Ransom (Chris Evans). As we later find out, not only is he equally selfish, but he was the secret culprit all along. Ransom (whose name is kind of a big tell) is just another privileged jerk that wants a claim to his “ancestral home”.
When Detective Blanc and Marta work together to expose Ransom, the real point of the movie is made clear: wealth and power should be distributed to the masses, and nepotism is garbage. We do not live in a meritocracy, where those that are hardworking and talented are guaranteed to be rich and successful. For the most part, wealth is largely inherited, and those that benefit tend to believe in their own innate superiority.
It was only through a convoluted series of events that Marta was able to “earn” her fortune. Knives Out does imply, however, that good things eventually come to the good-hearted: every selfless action Marta took led to the arrest of Ransom.
The closing shot is of a young woman of color from an immigrant family looming over the balcony, looking down on the pompous WASPs who used to make the mansion their home.
Finally, we realize that this is a satire of modern life, masked in the tropes of the genre Rian Johnson loves.