Knives Out Movie Analysis: How Rian Johnson Portrays American Values Through Film

I did a movie analysis of this new film Knives Out by Rian Johnson and I’ve got to say that it really is a film steeped in rich metaphor.  It’s important to remember though that the film Knives Out, comes on the coattails of a great director: Rian Johnson.  It has a 97% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes and only cost $70 million to make. That’s insane nowadays, especially in the age of the extensive CGI blockbuster action bazookas that cost a bazillion dollars to make. Knives Out for me is a true revel in an age of film cheese which shows that most often the best (true) cinematic masterpieces require nothing more than simply a cast of great actors and one magnificent director.

So let’s address the elephant in the room before I get cracking here.  This is the first film after Rian Johnson’s critical disaster: Star Wars The Last Jedi.  That one will be a film that will live in infamy.  Few films garner so much disdain and loathing than that particular contribution to the beloved Star Wars franchise.  But in all fairness, there wasn’t much there for Johnson to really work with.  We all know about how little wiggle room the soul-sucking Disney board rooms leave for the creative juices.  Star Wars reboots were cursed from the get-go and the proof is that even a terrific filmmaker like Johnson couldn’t have saved that disaster.

Having said that I want to get back to my Knives Out film analysis here because that’s what’s on the table.  Knives Out is alike in modern films in its approach to politics in yet alternatively it is also unlike modern films in its implementation of it.  So I swear, every movie, nowadays, wants to put a political ‘slant’ on everything. It’s awful and it’s one of the reasons why age-old franchises like the new ‘Ghostbusters’ & ‘Terminator’ have bombed so horribly at the box office.

Clearly Hollywood is struggling to stay politically relevant.  People are without a doubt oversaturated with opinions today.  When it comes to morals in films, people are likely to tune it out. This means that it takes a purely keen approach to reach people with a message nowadays. Rian Johnson clearly takes on that challenge and pulls it off with gusto.  The political relevance in this fictional narrative is so subtle it barely escapes your subconscious.  Most people don’t notice because it hits them subliminally but it none the less passes through to create a real neural connection.

So now I’m superbly convinced that Rian Johnson is an excellent filmmaker and it all comes together in this epic film: Knives Out.

Warning: this Knives Out analysis is filthy with spoilers

Firstly we are introduced to a caste of upper-middle-class WASPS. They are the types of people you’d never want to meet at a dinner party and yet here in the first part of the film we find ourselves in such an ordeal.  Here we see them in their natural habitat (in the multi-million dollar mansion of the family patriarch.)

We find out that this dinner party is meant to celebrate the 85th birthday of the family’s aging grandfather Harlan Thrombey. Thrombey is a rich, well to do entrepreneur. He’s your atypical self-made man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made it in the competitive world of publishing and writing.

On what came to be his final day, he is surrounded by the likes of his son and business partner Walt, his Daughter and her husband Lynda and the tag-along mother/ex-wife of an unseen son, Joni.  Accompanying them are the two grandchildren.  An outspoken alt-right troll named Jacob and the liberal SJW brat Meg. I forgot to mention the live-in Help: Fran the housekeeper and Marta the nurse.

The story begins when Harlan is found dead by Fran, his live-in housekeeper.  The apparent cause of death?: “Self-inflicted” sliced throat.

When we meet the police examiners at the Thrombey mansion they are interviewing those present at the time of death.  It all seems to be a routine examination and all suspects at first seem clean.   That is until a special investigator, Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) enters the picture.

Benoit declares himself to be the “third party arbiter.”  He calls himself essentially an unbias opinion whose only motivation is to find THE TRUTH.

After a thorough examination of each witness, it is only when the nurse Marta is interviewed that the truth begins to emerge.  We find that Marta is wrought by a strange condition whereby anytime she attempts to commit a lie, she is given to bouts of intense vomiting.  By introducing Marta with this vital tell it gives a level of unbridled Intel to the examiners.  At that Benoit commissions her to be his official attache to the investigation.

We come to find out that Harlan confided a lot more information in Marta than expected.  In fact, according to her many of the ‘official’ statements by the family are a series of half-truths and cover-ups that point directly to sound motives towards Harlans murder.

Through Marta we find:

  • Harlan had caught his daughter’s husband cheating on her and threatened to tell her. (we know that there is a prenup signed so her husband would not beget any money from a divorce.)
  • Joni was stealing money from the college fund that Harlan had set up for her.
  • Harlan, surreptitiously, fired Walt from the family business at the business party.

Marta as the Ideal Thrombey (who never was)

Marta is Harlans Nurse.  Her origin is never clearly stated and even the Thrombey family can’t seem to pinpoint where she came from.  Some of them say she is from Paraguay and another says offhandedly that she is from Uruguay.  It is apparent that the Thrombeys don’t really consider her to be one of their equals, in fact, they sort of talk down to her.  That is, however, with the exception of Harlan.

The film paints a picture of the very plutonic relationship between Marta and Harlan.  Harlan recognizes her as his equal and sort of protege. The two play the Chinese game Go and Marta beats him every time.

There seems to be a connection between Marta and the true moral virtue of the American ideal that Harlan sees in her.  Johnson embued her character with the same trait as America’s greatest leaders like Honest Abe and Geoge Washington (known for the Cherry Tree incident).  In this sense, I think she embodies the American Working class who just wants to do an honest day’s work.  

What is funny about whodunit films is that the most unlikely person is more often than not the one who committed the murder. Marta basically has no motive to killing Harlan.  When we find out in the first act that it was Marta the mystery is basically over…or so Rian Johnson would have us think.

Even when Marta seemingly mixes the medication and delivers the fatal news to Harlan, Harlan dies willingly in order to preserve Martas purity.  She tells him she needs to call the hospital immediately or else he will only have 10 minutes to live.  However, Harlan accepts his fate and tells her that if the police do an investigation than they’ll most surely discover her dark secret.  That is, that her mother is an illegal alien. With that, he kills himself to preserve Martas innocence and keep her with her family.

The Thrombeys: An All American Family & The Disparity of Inherited Wealth

There exists a myth in the American ethos.  This myth is the idea of monetary success founded on human progress through honest hard work. The reality of it, however, is that a growing wealth disparity brought on by inheritance is leaving those hard-working few to be left out of their share of national income.  Instead of the old ideals of hard work paying off, the lions share goes to those who have a privileged safety net: familial patrimony and dynastic wealth. 

Grit and hard work have always been considered the tenants of the American traditionalist values.  The entire Thrombey family has none of those things:

  • Walt got to where he is as the head of the family business because Harlan, his father, gave him the job.
  • Joni and her daughter have to live off of handouts by Harlan while at the same time adopting a Social Justice attitude of ungratefulness to the hand that feeds them.
  • Linda only got her success from a large handout from Harlan.

The Thrombey family is delusional.  They never seem to see that they are the beneficiaries of this new economic nobility and instead they operate of their own grandeur.  In one instance they ignorantly exclaim their right to Harlans estate on grounds of an “age-old Geneology.” Though it’s comically informed that Harlan had purchased the estate from a Pakistani mogul in the ’80s.

I think that this “Pakistani Mogul” should be noted here. He’s only got a brief mention but that statement is the basis for what comes to be central to this film’s pro-capitalist theme and that is, in a traditional sense, wealth belongs to the honest, hard worker and not to the trust-fund baby.  Harlans ideal can only come to fruition in a system where grit and ingenuity trump genealogy and where anybody willing to compete can set the bar for the next generation of those willing to sacrifice.

Who gets the family fortune and to whom does the American ideal truly belong? The meaning behind the finale.

Throughout the film the Thrombey family is inheritance-hungry.  All anybody wants to know is “who gets the money?”  When it is announced that Marta is to receive the entirety of the Thrombey holdings the family quickly turns on her. Even Meg, who champions liberal values, outs Martas illegal immigrant family, seemingly blackmailing her, to try and keep the fortune in the family.

Harlan states post-mortem that he believes this decision is “for the best” and that it will “help keep the family together.”  By making Marta the inheritor of the Thrombey fortune this echoes the ideal that American fortune should once again be had by the honest day laborer. That ultimately greed will break down the system and only the honest work keeps things afloat.

Even at the end of the film when Marta receives the toxicology report which states that she had in fact delivered the proper dose of medicine.  Though Ransom switches the bottles, Marta knows the medicines by feel.  Even Benoit states to her: “you are a good nurse.”

Benoit tells her that she inherited the Thronby fortune by not playing “their game.” That is a game of greed and avarice.  Instead, she played her own game which is a game of honesty and integrity.  That is because Marta represents the virtue that hard work and dedication are meant to embody.

Are we to believe here that the fortune of the American ideal is not be had by greed.  That the age of trust-fund babies can’t outlive the sheer grit of the person who does an honest days work? At the end of the film, we see the final scene where Marta is now standing atop the balcony looking down at the entire Thrombey family.  In her hands is a mug that says “my house my rules.”  It is here that we are asked the final question: Will Marta take care of the family?



Written by Grand Hierophant

The Grand Hierophant

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