When Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson, 2019) was released in late 2019, it quickly garnered praise from both audiences and critics alike. People loved the twists and turns of its plot, Ransom Drysdale’s (Chris Evans) infamous cozy cable-knit sweater, and the over-the-top Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig); people even went to see it multiple times to try and catch small details that they might’ve missed the first time (my best friend ended up seeing it over ten times in theaters and now has a Knives Out related tattoo). The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and, as of June 18th, is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
The film presents a memorable commentary on class and race. One of the more subtle things that Johnson puts in the film is the idea of progressivism that many upper class families pretend to have. Similar to 2017’s Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele), which shows how microaggressions grows into full-blown racism towards African-American people, Knives Out takes a look at these wealthier, seemingly progressive, predominantly white families that pretend to live in a post-racism utopia. One only has to look at the treatment of the protagonist Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) and the microaggressions she faces.
Marta comes into the families’ lives as the caretaker of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). When Harlan’s cause of death becomes suspicious and Detective Blanc comes to investigate the case, the family members are asked about Marta. This is when the microaggressions begin, almost unnoticeable. Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) says that Marta is from Ecuador while her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), remarks that she is from Paraguay, even evoking a quote from the musical Hamilton. They promote the stereotype of what a “good” immigrant should be – nice and quiet, with a good work ethic. They even call her part of the family, rather than just a caretaker. Later in the film during a flashback, the family engages in a conversation about immigration and Richard, as he rants about the loss of “American” culture, calls Marta over to join in as the “immigrant perspective.” He, once again, mistakes her country of origin for Uruguay and continues to talk about the “good” immigrant who comes to the country, while treating Marta like the help by nonchalantly handing her a plate for her to take care of. The comments towards Marta are slight but all too familiar.
The most interesting treatment of Marta comes from Meg Thrombey (Katherine Langford), a depiction of the seemingly liberal college student that many of us have probably encountered. When first introduced, she seems like an ally to Marta, telling the police officers that called Marta “the help” that she was really more like family. She notices Marta having anxiety in a later part of the film and offers her a joint to help. She appears to be kind and open-minded, but it is revealed to be more a façade. Marta becomes the heir to all of Harlan’s fortune, surpassing all of his children and grandchildren, including Meg. The Thrombey and Drysdale families then begin to plot against Marta, letting their previous microaggressions become full-on hostility with Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) even threatening her undocumented mother and attacking her family’s immigrant status. Shortly after Marta is announced as the heir, she receives a call from Meg, first asking how Marta is doing. The phone call then evolves into a guilt trip, with Meg imploring Marta to give up the fortune to the family, saying that she couldn’t afford college without the money. Meg attempts to take advantage of Marta’s kindness by trying to remind her of her place in the family. She feels entitled to the money just by being a familial relative to Harlan instead of his actual friend and caretaker, Marta. Meg is kind and an ally until her privilege is threatened, much like the rest of her family and many people across the country.
The microaggressions and hostility leveraged at Marta are unfortunately very common in many seemingly progressive families and Knives Out helps people to realize how hollow their progressive sentiments can be. As seen in Meg, people will say that they support immigrants, are actively anti-racist, are progressive, until their comfortable life of (mainly white) privilege is threatened and they turn to attacking minorities to retain their lifestyle. They proclaim to be progressive, to pretend to live in this post-racism utopia, but don’t do any tangible actions to back up their statements. The film cleverly uses these characters in its full, entertaining murder-mystery plot, and helps people to recognize the similarities of these characters in their lives.