Differences in Class and Race in Knives Out (2019)
By Cole Keady
When I first saw Rian Johnson’s modern-day Whodunnit film Knives Out, I knew that it was something unique. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an original Murder-Mystery film, and given the current age of sequels, reboots, and adaptations of novels, seeing that Knives Out was an original screenplay got me really excited. The world of Murder-Mysteries has been pretty stagnant over the last half-century. Apart from the brilliant works of Agatha Christie and subsequent movie adaptations, the Murder-Mystery genre has been demoted to the world of detective shows and one-off, half-baked television specials. Being an avid fan of the Murder-Mystery genre, I was excited for this movie from the moment I saw the trailer.
Knives Out stands as the beginning of a new era in cinema, proving to movie studios that we want more well-written Murder-Mystery films. Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the murder mystery genre be forgotten. Back in the early 20th century, many writers spoke out about the bland, overused tropes that made mystery novels famous and condemned them from being original writing. As B. Murphy wrote, “although the question of whether mystery and detective novels could achieve the same level of craftsmanship and literary significance as the ‘serious’ novel was long ago laid to rest, mystery writers themselves kept digging it up again” (Murphy, 9). This historical event illustrates that history tends to repeat itself, and indeed has done so with the release of Knives Out.However, the so-called hiatus from the genre has not been without its growth and evolution. Not only does the movie have engaging characters and a well-written plotline, it has well-incorporated, real-world issues of class and race discrimination. The visual imagery and literary design help aid the film’s messages in a well-written way and does so in a nuanced, natural manner.
The story of Knives Out takes place in modern-day Massachusetts in 2019, so the themes that it addresses are ones that audiences can relate to, and gives us character viewpoints that we can relate to in one way or another. The first set of characters we meet are the Thrombeys, who are your typical wealthy, white American family. Although not all of them are perfectly able, as seen by Walt, who walks with a cane, each of them strongly embody the privileged upper-class. They all dress in clean, high fashion clothing, all have expensive smartphones and drive shiny new cars. However, all of them have earned their success thanks in part to the patriarchal head of the family, Harlan Thrombey; his daughter Linda built her real estate business “from the ground up” with a million-dollar loan from Harlan, his son Walt runs Harlan’s book publishing company, and Joni, Harlan’s daughter-in-law gets an “Allowance” as well as tuition money to put her daughter, Meg, through College.
This biggest contrast of power is if we compare the Thrombeys to Harlan’s nurse, Marta. Although we learn that Marta is an immigrant from somewhere in South America, we never actually learn where specifically. Each of the Thrombeys claim that she is from either Paraguay or Uruguay, and even Ransom calls her Harlan’s “Brazilian Nurse”. This recurring “joke” illustrates that none of the Thrombeys have actually bothered to remember where she is from, or even ask her at all. This situation also arises during the detective questioning process, and indeed does what so many films from the early to mid 20th century did, which was to introduce women and/or people of color and who they are from a white person’s perspective. Not only do we hear who she is from the Thrombeys first, but she is also interviewed by the detectives last. Although understandable, since she isn’t a family member, she saw Harlan every day, perhaps knew Harlan better than anyone, and she was one of the last people to see him alive. In spite of that, none of them suggested that Marta should be interviewed first because they cared too much about being interviewed themselves.
This theme of power in this film boils down to the core elements of ego and self-absorbed behavior from the Thrombey family. All of them are well off in their own regards, but none of them stack up to Harlan, who truly built his career from the ground up. As Alissa Wilkinson from Vox wrote in her review, “its members are worthy of ridicule, not because they’re wealthy but because they refuse to admit their wealth comes from anything but their own merit”. We see this during the detectives questioning the Thrombeys, not only because they avoid addressing it, but much of what they say is not the truth. For example, while the famed sleuth Benoit Blanc is questioning each of the Thrombeys, we cut away to show what actually happened; Harlan had found out Richard was cheating on Linda, Joni had been pocketing Meg’s tuition money for herself, and Harlan had fired Walt from the publishing company.
However, when each of them is asked about what had happened, they lie and claim otherwise, in order to avoid the question. Even though their lies aren’t directly pertinent to the case, and the detectives later admit that none of those is a strong enough motive to kill Harlan, each of them lied to protect their image and reputation. Contrasted to Marta, who at this point in the film is the least powerful, but also has the most to hide. Not only was she the last to see Harlan alive, for all she knows she killed Harlan and is now hiding that to protect her mom, who is undocumented and could be deported if Marta was found guilty. The fact that Marta’s police questioning is pushed to the end not only shows the imbalance of power between the Thrombeys and Marta but also shows that, as Marta says to Blanc, “You’re not much of a detective”.
Another example of a character exercising their power is by Linda’s son Ransom in the final act. Once Blanc has pieced it all together as to how Harlan was killed, Ransom appears to be the guilty party. Once Ransom has been accused, he turns on Marta and threatens her with lawyers, and how little jail time he’ll receive for attempting to kill Harlan and the other housekeeper Fran. This part in the film perfectly illustrates the way that our society works and has worked for a long time; regardless of how much evidence is stacked against you, and as long as you have enough money and influence over the accuser, you have a higher chance of only receiving a “slap on the wrist” for your crimes. Not only is dominance being shown, but Ransom is also a white man talking down to Marta, who is a South American woman and is threatening her with his power. Even though at this point in the movie, Marta has inherited all of Harlan’s assets and is immensely more powerful than Ransom, he knows full well, and even says that he’ll barely get any jail time for his “alleged crimes”.
The concept of discrimination in Knives Out is purposely obvious. Because the movie calls back so often to Agatha Christie film adaptations of the twentieth century, many of which featured a predominantly white cast, with only people of color pushed to side characters or extras. We see in many of Christie’s novels the tropes that are represented in Knives Out, such as Three Act Tragedy, Black Coffee, and The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman. This is another brilliant way that Knives Out modernizes the Murder-Mystery genre. As Brian Tallerico similarly stated in his review, “Ultimately, as in the films and books that inspired this one, it’s all about the whodunit, which is revealed in such unexpected ways that just when you think you have it all figured out, you realize something doesn’t add up.” For the first half of the movie, you believe that Marta has killed Harlan, whether intentional or not. Where the film subverts our expectations is that Harlan doesn’t die by the vengeful hands of Marta, but rather her own innocent mistake and a hasty cover-up by Harlan so Marta’s mother isn’t deported. Because as Meg mentioned earlier, “He’s a truly selfless man”, Harlan knows that if Marta were found to be the cause of his death, that due to the Slayer Rule, Marta wouldn’t inherit the fortune and his family would take it instead. Fast forward to the end of the movie, once the true suspect has been caught and Marta knows that she’s inheriting Harlan’s estate, we see her drinking out of Harlan’s “My House, My Rules, My Coffee!” mug, her hands leaving only “My house” visible, staring over the balcony of the family mansion looking down on the Thrombeys. This final scene is perhaps the best in the entire film, not only because it’s such a subtle way to show Marta literally standing tall over the easily hateable Thrombeys, but also because the discrimination roles are flipped here. The once rich, white family is left defeated and penniless by Harlan and Marta, the once lower-class immigrant is standing on the balcony of their former family home, more powerful than them all.
When I first saw Knives Out in theaters, I was invested in the story almost immediately. I grew up watching the basic, recycled plots of Scooby-Doo, so I don’t have a very high bar for what entertains me with a mystery plotline. However, it has quickly become one of my favorites because of its production value and fantastic literary imagery. Over the last decade, lots of mystery films or TV show episodes have prioritized concepts of difference, power, or discrimination, rather than the characters, plot, or literary imagery, resulting in a bogged down half-baked plotline and this movie proves you can do both.
One example of prioritizing identity issues over viewer engagement are the recent two seasons of the BBC show Doctor Who. For over 60 years, Doctor Who has been a staple in the Sci-Fi genre, pioneering new villain ideas and bringing us engaging and creative stories. However, with the recent change of the series’ showrunner, the show has begun to include such issues where it hadn’t before. Granted, this is by no means unwarranted. The show has included real-world issues for decades and has done it quite successfully. However, given the show’s predominantly white-male Doctor/white-female companion archetype for most of its history, it’s understandable to see how the show would want to diversify its character base and attempt to give stories that also could relate to our modern-day issues. Unfortunately in its efforts, the show’s episodes have become dull and propagandistic, and are full of weak villains and shallow, unrelatable characters. However, seeing that the writers and showrunner are actively thinking about these issues and want to bring them to Doctor Who is encouraging. However, if we look at the way that Knives Out has been able to incorporate elements of discrimination and power into the characters and the plotline, there has to be a level of nuance brought to its execution, and better incorporation of those concepts.
Knives Out marks the dawn of a new era for Murder-Mysteries. Not only did the film reintroduce or renew our love for the genre, but it did so at a time when many movies and TV shows were unable to achieve the same level of cultural and historical insight. As Brian Tallerico stated in his rogerebert.com review, “it’s not just a wildly fun mystery to unravel but a scathing bit of social commentary about where America is in 2019”. The relevant concepts of race and class, paired with how it changes those concepts in new ways is what makes the film so uniquely insightful. Seeing the movie and the story that it tells is what I believe made it so successful. As a result of its success, Rian Johnson has been reported to be writing a sequel within the same shared cinematic universe with Daniel Craig returning as Benoit Blanc. If that is true, and if this film is any indication of how insightful the sequel will be, we are in for an exciting cinematic universe. I absolutely would recommend this film to anyone who loves Whodunnits, and especially to anyone who loves engaging, progressive films.
Benshoff, Harry M. and Griffin, Sean. “America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies.” Google Books,Wiley, 20 Jan. 2009, books.google.com/books/about/America_on_Film.html?id=BXELAQAAMAAJ.
“The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=B5SGDAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=murd er+mystery+genre&ots=gOQSk1h2z9&sig=tfE3wazff9Hx9FW8O_2LgCoy2y8#v=onepag e&q&f=false.
Tallerico, Brian. “Knives Out Movie Review.” Film Summary (2019): Roger Ebert.com, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/knives-out-2019.
Wilkinson, Alissa. “Knives Out Is a Delightful Agatha Christie-Style Whodunnit Made for 2019 America.” Vox, 12 Sept. 2019, www.vox.com/culture/2019/9/12/20857504/knives-out-review.