In ‘Knives Out’, Humble Compassion Outsmarts White Supremacy
‘Knives Out’ and the Thrombey family are perfect examples of how white supremacy brings white people together in both shocking and unsurprising ways.
This essay contains major spoilers for ‘Knives Out’
On the night of his 85th birthday, celebrated crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) insists on his nightly game of Go with his caretaker and nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) after they retire from the party. Go is an ancient Chinese game, invented over 2,500 years ago, where two players compete to expand their territory while thwarting the liberties of their opponent. We don’t know it yet, but the central mystery of Rian Johnson’s (Looper, Star Wars) modern whodunnit, Knives Out, relies on this game as the vehicle for its story.
Drunk on celebratory champagne, Harlan wonders why he can’t seem to ever beat Marta. “I’m not playing to beat you,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I’m playing to build a beautiful pattern.” It’s this chill disposition and her kind heart that earn Marta the Thrombey family fortune by the end of the movie, much to the shock, disappointment, and rage of his adult children. The Thrombeys’ violent entitlement to the fruits of their father’s labour, namely his cash, publishing company, and the family home, pits them against Marta in a real-life, high stakes round of Go.
Though seemingly a suicide, Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfeld), his partner Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), and private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) look into the cirmstances leading up to the patriarch’s death. Marta believes Harlan died by her hand when she seemingly mixed up his medication and injected him with a fatal dose of morphine. He refused an ambulance, and insisted that they frame his death as a suicide, worried that if she was found responsible, her undocumented mother would then be deported. He creates an airtight alibi for Marta that removes her as a suspect, and orders her to follow his instructions. Being a crime writer and having a flair for the dramatic, Harlan slits his goddamn throat right in front of her.
Before his death, Harlan discovers his family in various lies, coming to realize that his inflated author ego stifled their emotional growth. It’s through his deep and trusting friendship with Marta that he comes to this realization and can finally reckon with his shortcomings as a father. In an effort to right his wrongs, he decides to cut off his family’s access to his financial resources, ultimately entrusting Marta with his fortune upon his death. On the night of his birthday, he reveals this plan to his grandson, Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans), who begins plotting to frame Marta for Harlan’s murder.
In Ransom, the Thrombeys see the worst parts of themselves that they refuse to accept as their own. Before the will reading, the family gets into a shouting match when Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell) reveals to the family that he overheard the words “my will” and “I’m warning you” in an argument between Harlan and Ransom the night of the party. “Our father finally came to his senses and cut this worthless little brat out of his will,” Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), Jacob’s father, gloats. Ransom’s parents, Richard (Don Johnson) and Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), are shocked but wonder if “this might finally make [him] grow up,” that “this might be the best thing that could ever happen to [him].” Little do they know that Ransom wasn’t the only one that Harlan removed from his will.
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Their lack of humility and self-awareness become apparent when the will’s contents are revealed in the next scene. Early in the movie, the Thrombeys make a point to assure Marta that they consider her part of the family, and promise her their financial support in the aftermath of Harlan’s death. Yet when they find out he’s entrusted her the entirety of his fortune, the whole family immediately turns on her, spewing racist and sexist insults to demean her even though she had no idea about Harlan’s plans. “You little bitch,” Linda screams, wagging a finger in Marta’s face, “Were you boinking my father?!”
Ransom rescues her from the Thrombey pile on, putting on a veneer of kindness and solidarity to gain her trust. After coercing her into admitting she mixed up Harlan’s medication, Ransom seems taken aback. “I always thought I was the only one that could beat him at Go,” he muses. “I thought that meant something.” Indeed, it did. Blanc realizes that Ransom orchestrated for Marta to kill Harlan by negligence, switching his medication so she would lose her entitlement to his inheritance. Harlan’s toxicology report comes back negative, revealing that Marta’s professional competence led her to give him the correct doses after all. Had Harlan let her call an ambulance instead of taking the most drastic action possible, he would have still been alive. Without even trying, Marta avoids playing into Ransom’s scheme, and ultimately exposes him for the conniving, murderous little shit that he is.
Each of the Thrombeys do everything in their power to manipulate Marta into renouncing the inheritance, refusing to entertain the thought of working things out with her like a human being. Though she promises to take care of Meg Thrombey (Katherine Langford), Harlan’s granddaughter, Meg betrays Marta’s trust out of fear, telling the whole family about her undocumented immigrant mother. Walt then attempts to leverage this against her, simultaneously threatening to have her mother deported while assuring that they would help her if she were to renounce the inheritance. Luckily, Marta sees through his transparent attempt at intimidation and stands her ground.
The way this white family went from screaming at each other to eat shit to working collectively to oppress a young Latinx woman was both shocking and unsurprising. Regardless of their personal feelings towards each other, white supremacy facilitated the Thrombeys to quickly band together against this immigrant woman who they perceived to have infiltrated their family. The family was eager to tell Ransom that he deserved to be cut out of the will for his own good, yet they refused to take their own advice when Harlan seemingly leaves them out in the cold too. Instead of trusting Marta the way their father did, they demonize and other her, attempting to use their systemic advantages against her. Harlan isn’t so innocent either, failing to seek her consent to name her in his will and also directly traumatizing her. The Thrombeys use Marta to work out their family drama, reducing her to but a pawn in their games.
Ultimately, it’s Marta’s commitment to family that helps her survive. She doesn’t move through her world to dominate, she moves through it to leave it a kinder, better place for everyone. Instead of perpetuating the same abusive, self-serving behaviours of the Thrombeys, Marta comes out on top simply by minding her business and being compassionate. In the closing shot of the film, as she looks down on the family that betrayed her from the balcony of their former home, it’s clear that the Thrombeys have much to learn from her.
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