Knives Out: Time to talk about politics

In the wake of this blogpost, you probably already know I’m a Rian Johnson fan. But in case you missed it: I love Rian Johnson. He’s a super smart writer. And his recent film, Knives Out, showed just how deftly he could handle a theme and still keep you on the edge of your seat.

Spoilers for the movie. Let’s take a deep dive.

You can’t talk about Knives Out without talking about politics. The main character Marta, played by Blade Runner 2049‘s Ana de Armas, is the daughter of an illegal immigrant. She is a young Latina woman working as the in home nurse for a very rich and eclectic Harlan Thrombey. While she is obviously documented enough to have gone to school to get her nursing degree, it is made clear in the film that her mother is undocumented. I want to restate that because this film deliberately plays on our ideas of who a criminal is – and all too often in our society it is easier to believe the criminal is the brown face in the room.

In fact, Rian Johnson specifically plays with this idea in a number of ways. Most obviously to the plot, Marta is revealed as the killer very early in the story. She has motive, she (apparently) created the circumstances that led to Harlan’s death. Her sorrow over the sequence of events makes her profoundly sympathetic as a character, but, at least for the first half hour or so of the film, we find ourselves as viewers in a unique situation. We either want her to get away with this murder, or wish there were some extenuating circumstance that would prove her innocence. But as she herself believes that she is guilty, we, too, believe in her guilt. While it is later revealed that the actual murderer is not who we think they are, this is a very radical approach to take given who Marta is. If I did not trust Rian Johnson as a filmmaker as much as I do, I would have been far more uncomfortable with where the film was going. As it was, Knives Out balanced at the point of being an indictment of undocumented persons before veering sharply in the opposite direction.

One of the most telling scenes in this film deals directly with the issues of immigration and otherization pervasive in our society. From the beginning, Marta is treated as an outsider. This was a very interesting thing for me to watch, having had some experience in my life with the kind of paid caretakers who become a kind of extended part of the family. There’s something to dig into here about how our society sees care, about how easy it is to brush the hard work of caretaking under the rug. It is easier to do that, of course, if the person doesn’t even look like you. Marta is not even invited to the funeral, a running bit of dialogue. Each of Harlan’s extended family assures Marta that they wanted her at the funeral, but that the other members of the family “out-voted” them. But it becomes clear that none of them have any respect for Marta, or even know anything about her. In one sharply agonizing scene, Marta stands in the room while the extended family debates what should happen to people who come into the country illegally. They’re debating her personhood, or more specifically the personhood of her mother, whose sacrifices have gotten Marta here – and they don’t even have the grace to get her country of origin right.

It is amazing how quickly the family turns on her fully, even those who had defended her nominally, when they realize that she is the heir to Harlan’s fortune, his house, and his books. Even Meg, who is ostensibly her friend, betrays her at when her own security seems threatened. Keep in mind that none of the family knows that Marta may be implicated in Harlan’s death at this point. She is the woman who took care of him for years, who knew him best before he died, but she’s not family – she’s not tied by blood, not even by race – and they go so far as to threaten her family to get what they consider their ‘rightful’ inheritance back. The only ally that she indirectly retains is Fran, who was another caretaker employed by Harlan largely to clean and prepare his meals. Fran, of course, dies – and her death proves Marta’s innocence. The killer is still in play. The crime is not what we thought it was.

In the end, the real criminal is Captain Am- *coughcouch* I mean, the real criminal is Ransom, Harlan’s grandson. This man is established early on as an entitled bastard. He never worked for anything, but claims everything by right of heritage – even going so far as the reference his “ancestral home” – a claim contested by Benoit Blanc, the investigator of the murder, with a scoffing laugh. He conspired to frame Marta for Harlan’s murder, but in the end Marta did nothing wrong. His crimes revealed, Ransom attempts to kill Marta – but his weapon is impotent, and Marta survives. If there has been any doubt, Ransom’s final monologue makes it obvious – this is a movie about who has the right to be in this house, the eclectic house of a fictional writer, yes, but also in the house of the United States of America. AP News called this film a “whodunit for the Trump era” and they’re not wrong. These are very real issues that we are wrestling with as a society, and Knives Out does not shy away from them.

There’s a last note about this film that should be mentioned. Despite being a complex, intelligent character, Marta is fundamentally kind. At the very end of the film, she is exonerated of suspicion and inherits everything. As she stands on the balcony, contemplating the Thrombeys, the viewer can’t help but remember her earlier bit of dialogue with Daniel Craig’s Blanc. When she says that she should help the Thrombeys, when she asks if that is the right thing, Blanc replies, “I know what I would do.” This family has been abusive and disrespectful and manipulative. They may not have been party to Ransom’s plot, but they wouldn’t have stood in his way. Marta has not yet decided if they deserve to be part of her life, and the film closes on this enigmatic scene – a Latina woman looking down on the entitled white family that disregarded her.

It’s a lesson that we should take to heart.

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