Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is both a loving tribute to the murder mystery genre and a scathing satire of white privilege and the bootstrapping myth in the age of Trump. It’s one of this year’s most entertaining examples of art as a reflection of the time and culture that produced it. Its Agatha Christie-inspired story, characters and aesthetic are what make it fun. Its politics are what make it valuable.
Knives Out gets right to work setting up its central murder. In the first scene, we’re plopped into the setting: a gorgeously decorated, sprawling Gothic mansion, and the corpse, mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), found in his attic library with his throat cut. The family are shocked. His South American immigrant caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas), perhaps Harlan’s only real friend, is devastated. The police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) believe it’s suicide. But private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired by an anonymous client to solve the case, suspects something more sinister.
Just as quickly as it sets up the plot however, Knives Out reveals that while Harlan’s death is the story, it’s not what the film is about. The initial police interviews with members of the Thrombey clan reveal that their entitlement issues and their patronizing treatment of Marta — the movie’s actual protagonist — is what we should be paying attention to.
In the initial police interviews, the wealthy Thrombeys are all quick to mention how Harlan worked hard to build his publishing empire. Son Walt (Michael Shannon) is proud to help carry on the family business. Oldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) also proudly tout their own self-built enterprises. But scratch the surface, of course, and none of them are the self-made successes they claim to be. Linda and Joni would be nowhere without financial help from Harlan, and Walt strains under the constraints of his father’s empire, desperate to make his own way.
The Thrombeys are a prime example of the bootstrapping myth, the idea that a person can achieve success purely through their own determination. Americans who have made it to the top (usually wealthy, white ones) like to claim that they lifted themselves from tough circumstances, while at the same time working to ensure less advantaged people never get the chance to do exactly that. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) even drives the point home by first misidentifying Marta’s country of origin to the police, then following up with a quote from Hamilton (which, he’ll have you know, he caught at the Public Theater).
Johnson tackles the family’s dynamic with wickedly sharp humor that lets none of them off the hook. He also lifts up Marta, who he shows as smart, selfless, and deserving of every opportunity to advance herself and her family. Marta knew Harlan better than anyone, and de Armas’ interactions with Plummer, shown in flashback, reflect a playful, sweet dynamic. Had things turned out better, you get the sense they’d have made a great crime-solving duo. De Armas also works well alongside Craig, whose Foghorn Leghorn drawl grows on you with each successive line reading.
As the events of the film progress, Knives Out becomes an whodunit-cloaked metaphor for the immigrant experience in the contemporary United States. Without revealing too much, circumstances drastically change for Marta, and the Thrombey clan reacts with fear and anger of the kind you often hear associated with building a wall on the Mexican border. Marta’s struggles and her inherent worthiness become an example of every outsider who’s tried to make it in America. Johnson handles these parallels with impressive deftness, never getting preachy, and always keeping things fun and relevant to the movie’s plot.
Knives Out feels like a product of its culture and time, but it also feels classic and timeless. It’s a fully original movie with an admirable perspective, in a time when original ideas are becoming increasingly rare. Johnson has created a real treasure with his latest film, one that will surely continue to be enjoyed and discussed by viewers for a long time to come.