“Knives Out” (Maybe the Best Way to do Social Commentary is Through a Murder Mystery)

11 mins read
photo courtesy of Claire Folger

I briefly mentioned “Knives Out” in my last review and have been too busy to watch anything new since “Locke and Key,” so I’m happy to use this as an excuse to talk about one of my favorite movies. “Knives Out” is a murder mystery film written and directed by Rian Johnson and starring an ensemble cast which includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and the late Christopher Plummer. It was released on Nov. 27, 2019 to critical acclaim and impressive box office numbers, and holds a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

“Knives Out” centers around the Thrombey family, whose mystery-novel-writing patriarch is found in his room the morning after his 85th birthday with his throat slit. Though originally ruled a suicide, the death of Harlan Thrombey raises the eyebrows of a private investigator named Benoit Blanc. Eventually, Benoit Blanc and Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrera, discover the true cause of Harlan’s death.

Dani’s Thoughts (Spoilers Ahead):

First and foremost, I need to talk a little bit about representation. Ana de Armas, the Spanish-Cuban actress who portrayed Marta Cabrera, explained that she almost didn’t answer the casting call for her character at first when her agent offered it to her because it went something like, “pretty, young, Latina nurse.” According to de Armas, Rian Johnson insisted that Marta would not be a stereotype, that she would not be sexualized, and that her character was central to the story. All of these promises came true. I am impressed beyond words that Johnson, a white man with no Hispanic heritage, was able to create a character who spoke so powerfully to my identity as a Venezuelan immigrant. The few scenes with Marta’s sister and mother are so precious to me that I sometimes watch them on repeat separate from the rest of the movie. They remind me that I often don’t feel a lack of representation in film until I actually see myself represented. Certain small moments, such as Marta’s mother saying “Y con quién voy a hablar?” (And who would I talk to?) remind me so strongly of my own mother that I cried the first time I saw them. Marta and her family are written with the kind of respect that I do not often see. 

Secondly, let’s talk about the Thrombeys. With the exception of Harlan (Christopher Plummer), they’re all pretty terrible people. The first interview scene reveals (in a way that’s both hilarious and a little heartbreaking) how gleeful each family member is to tear the others down in front of a police detective, presumably only days after the death of a close family member. The will- reading scene hammers home the absolute shallowness that pervades the entire family; they care for nothing except accruing more money, even though they are all evidently wealthy and perfectly secure. The individual interactions that they have with Marta show how manipulative they all are, and how entitled they feel to Marta’s kindness despite their own terrible behavior. Then there’s Meg (Katherine Langford), who’s set up to be more sympathetic, and her betrayal of Marta’s family’s immigration status is a move I find so unforgivable that I can easily tell you who my least favorite Thrombey is. It isn’t the alt-right troll, the murderer, the Trump supporter, the girlboss, or the Gwyneth Paltrow knock-off, though all of them are awful in their own entertaining ways. It’s Meg. If you wonder why I rage at white performative activists, analyze how much damage Meg does to Marta simply because of the small chance she might have to fill out the FAFSA for her next school year. Meg is just as dangerous as any Karen, and this movie makes no qualms about this fact. 11/10.

The plot of “Knives Out” holds up almost as well as its stellar characters. It’s gutsy to reveal the killer within the first quarter of a movie where the identity of the killer is, in theory, the crux of the matter. And yet the final reveal that it was Ransom (Chris Evans) who changed the medications in Harlan’s bag and furthermore, that Marta instinctively knew which medication was the correct one without looking at the label, does not feel either contrived or purely for shock value. I love movies and shows that I can enjoy even more during subsequent rewatches, and some of the little narrative details in “Knives Out” show *chef’s kiss* excellent writing. 

For example, Walt mentions that Harlan’s story plots popped into Harlan’s head fully formed. The audience gets to witness this in real time as Harlan comes up with the plan to exonerate Marta while he is, theoretically, dying. A more subtle revelation is that Ransom, who is set up to be a parallel character to Harlan, evidently comes up with the same plot when driving around after the party. He simply chooses to play the role of the villain. Speaking of Ransom, it cannot be at all coincidental that Chris Evans (of good guy Captain America fame) was cast as the young and conventionally attractive villain. Ransom is aware of his privilege both as a wealthy white man and, I think, as an attractive one. The movie seems to be aware that the audience will want a reason to believe he’s a good person, especially when he offers to help Marta. This makes the realization that he’s the true antagonist much more powerful. And his “Yeah I killed Fran but I guess I didn’t” speech went viral for a reason. Chris Evans absolutely (pun intended) killed it.

photo courtesy of IMDB

At face value, “Knives Out” is an engaging murder mystery with a pretty airtight plot. What truly elevates this movie, however, is the commentary which underlies the entire story. Marta faces microaggression upon microaggression throughout the movie. Is she from Ecuador? Brazil? Uruguay? Don’t ask the Thrombeys; they wouldn’t know (but they would quote “Hamilton” at the drop of a hat if pressed). These microaggressions, for the record, are not simply present for the movie to show the writers’ awareness of the existence of racism. They serve to characterize the manipulative and shallow nature of Marta’s employers. These are characters who openly admit knowledge of their privilege. Think of Walt (Michael Shannon) trying to intimidate Marta by threatening her mother, or Ransom’s fearlessness about being arrested for something as insignificant as arson. The dynamics of the family are toxic in every way and juxtapose themselves clearly against Marta’s good soul. I also love that though Marta also does a few questionable things, such as impeding Blanc’s investigation, the movie never tries to paint her as villainous for having the audacity of self-preservation. (Actually it’s not even self-preservation, since this is all for her family.) 

All in all, I love “Knives Out” because if I were to guess, the prompt that Rian Johnson set out to answer was not as straightforward as: “Who murdered Harlan Thrombey?” Instead,  Johnson chose to use the mystery to explore the dynamics that excessive wealth, privilege, and unaccountability create. And he did so in a much more successful way than a lot of movies that are ostensibly about wealth, privilege, or the immigrant experience often do. This movie has something for everyone: humor, mystery, really well-analyzed social commentary, and perhaps a moment of reflection for people who see themselves or their actions represented by the Thrombey family members. It’s also worth acknowledging that “Knives Out” stood out against a trend of big budget Hollywood films as an entirely original story — not a remake, not a prequel/sequel, not a new spin on an old story. My one teeeeeeny criticism is that in attempting to make the movie PG-13, Rian Johnson wrote in some weird curse word replacements. But even this little quirk is more endearing than anything else. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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