*Spoilers for Knives Out
The Thrombey estate is a vision of New England murder-crime glory––burgundy brick walls, dark gray gabled roofing, and quiet fall atmosphere to match the aesthetic. The mansion’s interior boasts an even more ostentatious design, each room filled to the brim with antiques: statues, paintings, lamps, chandeliers, glasses, books, little trinkets. Intricately patterned fabrics curtain large windows, red and green oriental rugs carpet the floors. Every nook and cranny has been sumptuously designed, leaving not one space that feels undeveloped. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) takes great pleasure in its whodunit aesthetic. The film is well-crafted––a listen to Johnson’s commentary track reveals its elaborate construction. Careful editing, mise-en-scène, and performances produce a wonderfully exciting tale, that takes the familiar murder-mystery and drops it in the modern-day.
However, Knives-Out’s contemporary setting is also the root of its problems. As Johnson notes, the whodunit genre is uniquely good at capturing class difference, while still entertaining. Without having to “slow down and describe,” a class critique is sewn into the very fabric of the genre; it is structured around a “microcosm of society where [a] murder takes place.” At its bare-bones, this group of people––all of whom are suspects––represent a gradient of class, from high to low. Owing plenty to Agatha Christie, the genre has this well-trained muscle that Johnson attempts to flex in a 2019 America. But despite Johnson’s insistence that the film is “effervescent, you know, not heavy handed––it’s not like a moral movie or a lesson movie or something, it’s not wagging its finger at you,” the film’s satire gets lost in its moral grounding.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), mystery novelist and patriarch to the Thrombey family is found murdered the day after his 85th birthday party. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a renowned private detective, begins to investigate. Though police believe it was suicide, Blanc suspects foul play. Early on in the film it is revealed that Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s nurse and friend, is the murderer. She is however, anything but cold-blooded. The murder was all a mistake, a mix-up of medications––injecting him with a lethal dosage of morphine. It is emphasized, repeatedly, that Marta is pure-hearted, of the couldn’t-even-hurt-a-fly variety: which plays to clever narrative effect. The tension of the film rests on what will happen to her, which is as Johnson notes, a “stronger narrative engine than just asking ‘whodunit’.”
Marta’s goodness lies not in her amiable connection with Harlan, or her will to protect her family. Johnson has bestowed upon Marta an essential character trait: she cannot lie. She isn’t just morally disinclined to reject truth, a physical condition wholly forbids her from doing so. Every time she lies, she pukes. A hilarious oddity, Johnson affirms that the fabrication of her condition was done so “from a pure story standpoint.” Since the audience cares about Marta, and the only way she can get out of her predicament is by lying, the constraint of her uncontrollable vomiting amps up the narrative’s suspense. But what Johnson perhaps doesn’t see, is that Marta’s tic marks her with something fundamental.
Her compulsive vomiting suggests that, at her core, Marta is good. She becomes an embodiment of everything the Thrombeys lack. The New England family is firstly, all white, and secondly, dirty rich. The sheer material excess of their environment blinds them from their own privileges. All living comfortably with the money of their father, Harlan’s children (and their children) exhibit a strange confidence in their brand of self-made or hard-working spirit. Each seems to encapsulate a satirical caricature: the hippie lifestyle guru, the alt-right internet troll, the woke liberal-arts student, and so on. Many of the family’s evil are displayed outright, but what is most vile is that their niceness is only ever exhibited for self-regard. They insist that Marta is family, but they regard her condescendingly. They willingly offer to help her, but only if she remains the “help.”
Marta is thus two things in relation to the Thrombeys: she is an immigrant and she is good. Knives Out makes much ado about critiquing the privileged white upper-class––and to an extent, does so successfully. The film makes pointed fun at the Thrombeys’ cluelessness to Marta’s home country––one claims Ecuador, another says Paraguay. But she herself is never given any cultural specificity. She becomes then, a figure of the Other. She is an immigrant. From where? Who knows. What is central to Knives Out’s plot, is that Marta is not like the Thrombeys.
The film depicts Marta and her immigrant family in a warm light. Their quaint home juxtaposes the coldness of the grand Thrombey mansion. Set design and lighting affirm this dualism: Marta’s home is small and cozy, exuding an inviting warmth, while the Thrombey’s home is needlessly large, filled with things but lacking the air of niceness. In this way, the Cabreras’ condition is both romanticized and essentialized. They become a model of immigrant existence in America; they are “Latina,” but even this homogenization doesn’t really matter. Marta wins the game: she is vindicated of any criminal charges as it is revealed that Ramson (Chris Evans), the Thrombey family’s black sheep, tricked her into killing Harlan. She becomes owner of all the Thrombeys have ever possessed, including their mansion. This material acquisition is posited as the ultimate win (though it is also something she approaches with reluctance). In the final scene, the family looks up to her as she stands on (what was formerly) their balcony, holding a mug in her hand with the words: “MY HOUSE, MY RULES, MY COFFEE!!”
Herein lies Knives Out’s fundamental problem: in critiquing white America, it identifies with a generalized other––in this case, the American immigrant––and glorifies the Other’s deprivation. In doing so, it exploits the very problem it appears to be sympathetic towards and simultaneously ignores the very power that enables such rhetoric. Rey Chow’s conception of the Maoist explains the issue with the film’s critique:
“The Maoist is thus a supreme example of the way desire works: What she wants is always located in the other, resulting in an identification with and valorization of that which she is not / does not have. Since what is valorized is often the other’s deprivation––‘having’ poverty or ‘having’ nothing––the Maoist strategy becomes in the main a rhetorical renunciation of the material power that enables her rhetoric… In a mixture of admiration and moralism, the Maoist sometimes turns all people from non-Western cultures into a generalized ‘subaltern’ that is then used to flog an equally generalized ‘West’(38-40).”
There are a few misalignments with Chow’s Maoist––namely, that her theory rests in a critique of academia’s perpetuation of orientalism. However, mapping the same framework onto Knives Out does offer useful insights. Marta’s warmth and essential goodness––the fact that she is by design equipped with moral virtue, or rather circuit-wired into moral perfection––romanticizes her immigrant existence. She possesses something fundamental that the Thrombeys don’t have and may never have. The audience identifies with her (for she is a moral compass) and begin to correlate her material deprivation with superiority––a sense that her lack imbues her with a pureness that is entirely dependent on her condition of deprivation. Marta’s lack of specific origin, or cultural identity, is a product of the Maoist strategy. All that is non-Western, or all that is other, is superior and therefore specificity is never necessary.
In Rian Johnson’s commentary track he says: “ [he] wanted the audience to leave this movie feeling like they’ve just been to a party. Leaving the movie with a smile on their face and bob in their head.” Clearly, Knives Out is designed for such a viewing. Johnson turns the comedy dials to the max, overshadowing the sheer horror of the Thrombeys’ exploitation of Marta. Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), one of Harlan’s sons, threatens Marta with the deportation of her undocumented mother. The scene is rightfully terrifying. But the shock of it all has a sole narrative purpose: establish the Thrombeys’ villainy and/or privilege. For a movie that allows you to leave with a smile on your face, it seems that what this shock value actually signals “to those who are meant to feel visible,” is “that [Johnson] doesn’t actually have them in mind.” As Monica Castillo writes in her op-ed for the New York Times, the film has “a tendency to exploit its story’s immigration angle.” Should the audience really be able to leave Knives Out with a smile on their faces and a bob in their heads? Is there not something horrifying about laughing off the real-life issues that many are “genuinely frightened of?” Can Knives Out offer nuanced social critique when it ignores the privilege that permits its own criticism?
*Knives Out is available to stream on Amazon Prime. You can download Rian Johnson’s commentary track here and listen to it while watching.
Castillo, Monica. “Why I Left ‘Knives Out’ With Emotional Whiplash.” The New York Times, 27 November 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/27/opinion/knives-out-movie.html.
Chow, Rey. “From Writing Diaspora: Introduction: Leading Questions.” The Rey Chow Reader, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 31-47.