The palace—a potent symbol of wealth with its intricately-embellished architecture, remote and wide-open spaces and Instagram-worthy scenery—is a place that is far removed from the rest of society, often gated off and separated by a long driveway to keep out the woes (and the people) of the real world. Rian Johnson’s (The Last Jedi, Looper) 2019 mystery-comedy Knives Out is a movie of veneers and misdirection situated in such a palatial mansion. This “whodunit” film, however, also surprises audiences with deeper socio-political commentary hidden in an allegory about immigration, in which the mansion serves as a proxy for the self-preservation tactics that accompany the privilege of the wealthy.
Knives Out (available now on Amazon Prime) is centered on the mysterious throat-slashing of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) at his 85th birthday party. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives after being hired by an anonymous party to investigate what the police believe to be a suicide, but someone else clearly expects is a murder. The Thrombey family (a star-studded ensemble) and Harlan’s nurse and close confidant Marta (Ana de Armas) are all suspects, and as the mystery unwinds, so do all of their secrets.
Playing on the campy nature of the whodunit genre, Johnson and his cast have created not only a compelling mystery, a rollicky absurdist comedy and a poignant satire, but also a shrewd examination of the nature of privilege and politics.
Knives Out is pure entertainment from beginning to end. With a tight script and a keen, compelling sense of direction, one of the film’s greatest pleasures is simply watching the intricate mystery unfold and guessing along at the clever twists. By making some unexpected moves, like showing the death in a flashback early on in the film, Knives Out stays one step ahead of its audience, subverting expectations and, in the process, redeeming a genre characterized by overused tropes and underdeveloped plots.
Intentional in its absurdity, the film and its all-star cast elicit big laughs through family squabbles and the elite pretensions of the Thrombey family. Despite all embodying starkly different and conflicting character tropes (the lifestyle guru, the jerk, the liberal arts student, the alt-right teen, etc.), the Thrombeys all devolve into the same petty shouting and dire attempts at self-preservation when their “rightful” inheritance is threatened. De Armas and Craig are the real stars here, however, as the former brings the cagey anxiety and cunning of Harlan’s nurse and confidant to life, and the latter is clearly having fun playing an over-the-top Southern gentleman with a knack for odd turns of phrase and lengthy ramblings.
These characterizations also play into the film’s well-articulated political themes and satirical jabs at modern America. Each family member has their own political beliefs and smug pretensions; they perceive themselves as self-built, despite how much they each rely on Harlan to get ahead. They also perceive Marta as “part of the family”…except for the fact that none of them can seem to recall where her family is from and no one will own up to not inviting her to Harlan’s funeral. Marta’s “outsider” presence is tolerated—even nominally accepted—until it puts their inheritance into question. The Thrombeys become a brilliant microcosm for how Americans perceive immigrants as noble until they threaten the established Americans’ comfortable existence.
For those with similar comic sensibilities, Knives Out is a goldmine of quips and intricate running jokes that exquisitely bridge mystery and comedy. But if you’re one put off by dark humor or gross-out moments, this may not be the film for you. In one running gag, for instance, Marta vomits whenever she lies, a quirk that both helps the mystery unfold and provides a bit of shock value once the gory sight of the initial murder wears off.
In terms of the mystery itself, Rian Johnson’s desire to defy expectations leads to an unusual structure that might distract whodunit purists. Instead of obscuring, Knives Out spends much of its first half revealing hidden information to the point that there seems to be little mystery left—except for how Blanc will make the same discoveries. Patience is a virtue, however, as there is plenty of unexpected mystery to be found here. In many such stories, there is joy in not knowing, but here there is joy in thinking you know and being dead wrong—and that may be an adjustment for some audiences.
The politics of Knives Out are deceptively simple, but, much like a murder mystery, as the layers are peeled back, the thematic elements become more compelling. For instance, an early scene depicts the family arguing over the politics of immigration with Marta in the room. Each member of the family has their own stance on the political spectrum and repeats familiar partisan mantras (“If they want to come here, they can do it legally, like Marta,” one says, and another yells, “They are putting children in cages!”). While the feud may not be an intellectually nuanced discussion, the film seems less interested in what the Thrombeys are saying than the context in which they are saying it.
Marta, a poor Hispanic daughter of an undocumented immigrant, becomes an object for the rich, white Thrombeys to argue over or to use as a symbol rather than a human in their political sparring. When Harlan Thrombey unexpectedly leaves his fortune to Marta, the family suddenly turns on her, no longer concerned about her perceived status as a hardworking immigrant whom they once deemed “part of the family.” Instead, their political ideologies—conservative and liberal alike—all collapse into a fervor of self-preservation. While some appear nicer than others, they all equally fall into the hysteria of losing their comfort to an ostensible “outsider.”
The Thrombeys are not only driven to bury their politics under self-preservation, but they are also privileged enough such that their politics mean nothing. Through their whiteness, upper-class status and American citizenship by birth, the family is able to toss aside their seemingly diverse beliefs when they become inconvenient; their politics are purely aesthetic.
Scrolling through social media, one can find politics galore, but one can also find plenty who claim themselves separate from politics. Between declarations that “movies today are too political” and the simple “I’m just not that into politics,” there are many who have taken one look at the political state of the country in the 21st century and said a very polite, “No thank you.” And who can blame them?
But for others, being “involved in politics” isn’t exactly a simple yes or no. While the Thrombeys might be in a position to forget their beliefs in favor of self-preservation, someone like Marta cannot escape the fact that a shift in politics could, at any moment, alter her life because of her race, class, gender or immigration status. Indeed, Marta’s character is more reality than fiction; recent policy changes are an unnerving reminder of the fragility of the “other” in American society, for instance, the recent overturning of the controversial ICE mandate that immediately jeopardized international student status if schools resort to completely online classes. The decision not to vote or not to be informed on matters of political importance is just as much of a political decision as outright political activism.
There will be times when we all want to get away from politics momentarily, but it is important to understand that politics govern all of our lives, to varying degrees. Politics may make us uncomfortable at times, especially if, like the Thrombey family, we are comfortable with the way things are. Despite the veneer of a comfortably apolitical status quo (that palatial estate of privilege and false sophistication), however, we must always ask ourselves whether the facade has encouraged us to simply talk without action or forget the humanity of those around us. If we ourselves stood something to lose, would our beliefs hold true?