Last night, I finally watched Knives Out, as I have signed up for a 99 cent week-long “trial” of Amazon Prime, compromising my moral high ground of boycotting Amazon in order to get free shipping for the Korean beauty creams I—make no mistake—did not need to buy, but that my vanity’s Achille’s heel, in the form of the one crease down the center of my forehead, goads me into purchasing.
The silver lining to doing business with the devil machine that is Jeff Bezo’s retail empire (the devil is good at bargains! There’s always a lining of the cheapest, Claires-store-ring-quality silver) is that I had access once again to Prime. I suppose I should watch the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel like the rest of the women in my census demographic, but I saw Knives Out pop up on the header. Since we had been foiled by Christmas crowds (remember crowds) from seeing it in the movie theatre (I don’t remember those) at Christmas, I had been on the lookout for it. And I hadn’t seen a movie in ages, and have been opting for the brain mush food of television.
I was instantly intrigued that our protagonist was the live-in nurse/companion a la an Edwardian mystery novel, and that, in our twentieth-century Agatha Christie adaptation, she was an immigrant from an unnamed Latin American (or South American!) country. The family continually misidentifies the country of her origin—Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador. And we are never graced with a correction.
Marta inverts the mystery-genre tropes about single women living close to an aging source of wealth. Like the best of impoverished companions, she has a vulnerable mother (although due not to aging or disease, but immigration status).
But, unlike the spinster-companion or the live-in nurse, Marta is not relegated to the background but becomes the detective Benoit Blanc’s Captain Hasting, the Watson to his Sherlock.
Marta has a secret, which provides her with a motive to continue tagging along with Blanc, the ability to foil his attempts to sniff out her role in the case. But her ingenue status is cemented with a strange plot device that assures us this unreliable narrator is actually most reliable—she vomits if she tells a lie.
Knives Out is a parable for Trump’s America masquerading as a whodunit, or perhaps whodunits are the ultimate form of social commentary. Whodunits, the everyman’s literature, read by schoolchildren, adults on trains, mothers while cooking, and grandmothers, delve into the messy subconscious of our societies. I know you would never pick up a knife or a vial of cyanide, says the mystery author, but don’t you see why this person does so? Are not the fears, the hates, the loves, the disappointments of this villain yours, too?
Marta (of course) is named Harlan Thrombey’s sole inheritor in his will, updated a week before his eighty-fifth birthday that became his last. Thrombey has rightfully cut out all his greedy children, and there is, of course, mayhem. The family that cooed with generosity and benevolence towards Marta for doing the hard and thankless work of caring for their father in his twilight of life turns on her with all their, well, knives out. The grotesque caricatures of Harlan’s children foist on Marta the fears that white Americans lob at immigrants: “this is our home! This is ours.”
A Thrombey challenges Marta: “You think I’m not going to fight to protect my home, our birthright, our ancestral family home?”
Benoit Blanc laughs in response, “That is hooey! Harlan, he bought this place in the ’80s from a Pakistani real estate billionaire.” The Thrombey’s collective amnesia about the origins of their land are a shade-lighter-than-veiled analog for the white American amnesia about our origins on this continent. The narrative we tell ourselves was that the land was unpopulated until—all at once—it was ours. Despite the historical trail of treaties with native tribes, the political machinations of governments to conquer it from its inhabitants and to claim it as their own, the narratives given to us to hold onto our portion of it and to obviate others’ claims to it.
The new money the Thrombey’s cling to is a wealth that wasn’t originally theirs—but how easily we forget. How easily we forget that the wealth we have is not ours alone, was given to us, or, perhaps was plundered for us.
In the final scene of the movie, we see Marta claiming what is now hers. The family, who have exploited the riches of the house and its owner in their own unique ways, now disenfranchised, cut off from the relationship with their home which they abused, the home that they assumed was theirs and theirs alone to use.
It’s a stunning reversion, a Magnificat-esque inversion of power. The bonds of mutual aid that ought to be there between social groups, that, in fact, were there between Marta and the Thrombey family as long as she remained in her place and did not threaten their power, were severed by the family’s miserliness and hatred of her. Contemptuous of their indebtedness to Marta, furious at being passed over for the birthright whose blessing and duties they had continually refused, the Thrombeys realize belatedly that they have been the engineers of their own estrangement. I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me, they realize, like the goats, too late.
“I should help them,” Marta says to Blanc, as she reflects on her vast wealth in the emptiness of the house and on the plight of the family outside.
“I have my opinion,” chuckles Blanc. “But I’m sure you’ll follow your heart.”