The “Self-Made” Wealth False Narrative Gets Confronted In ‘Knives Out’
It directly challenges the myth of the “self-made” wealth-hoarder with a cleverness and levity that feels seminal and timely.
This essay contains spoilers for ‘Knives Out’ and mentions suicide.
The Thrombey family is mourning the loss of its patriarch, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wildly successful mystery crime writer who was found dead the morning after his 85th birthday party. The question is whether this was a murder or death by suicide, and everyone is a suspect. Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfeld) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) arrive to investigate, accompanied by the famous and eccentric Private Detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, doing a Southern American accent that’s so bad it’s good). From this scenario unfolds a delightfully smart and funny Whodunnit adventure that is well worth the ride and culminates in one of the most satisfying endings I could ever hope for with a film like this. All in all, “Knives Out” is a genuinely fun and entertaining watching experience. It’s also an unexpected, but very welcomed, commentary on white American nationalism, racism, xenophobia, white liberalism, and the false narrative of “self-made” independent wealth.
“Seems like all his kids are self-made overachievers,” Lieutenant Elliott comments while questioning the Thrombey family members. But there is a noticeable trace of sharpness and cynicism in his voice. It’s true that several of the Thrombeys think of themselves as “self-made” and independently wealthy. “I built my business from the ground up,” says Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), without a hint of irony or self-awareness, but neither she nor the others would have their financial or social capital without the wealth shared with them by Harlan.
Joni (Toni Collette) runs a skincare company, but she wouldn’t be able to do so without the yearly allowance from Harlan. Her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), is able to attend a good college without worrying about tuition payments because Harlan finances it. Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company that Harlan created and funds. When Walt keeps referring to the books as “our books” at his birthday party, Harlan interjects to remind him, “They’re not our books. They’re my books.” It’s very apparent to everyone around them—especially the audience—that none of them are anywhere close to being “self-made.” Regardless, the Thrombeys hold tight to their delusions, existing as representations of many white American wealth-hoarders who do mental gymnastics to avoid admitting to how white supremacy, colonialism, and chattel slavery have created a racial wealth gap and how there are systems in place to prevent the socioeconomic mobility of BIPOC.
The film builds with more and more obvious examples of white entitlement, racism, and nationalism throughout. Linda’s husband, Richard (Don Johnson), quotes the “Immigrants, we get the job done” lyric from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway sensation, Hamilton, in a cringe-worthy moment of performative white allyship. But soon after, we see him railing against immigrants and defending Donald Trump. “I don’t like him, he’s an asshole,” he insists before repeating the same arguments we’ve heard from many Trump supporters time and again. “But maybe an asshole is what we needed… America is for Americans.”
Walt’s wife, Donna (Riki Lindhome), chimes in to say, “We are losing our way of our life and our culture.” Her hand shakes in a panic as she rants about how Mexicans are coming into the country, taking over, and wanting to have everything their way. Richard agrees, more or less, demanding that they should all have to “earn” their share, “Build something from the ground up just like dad and all the rest of us.” To drive his point home, he invites Marta (Ana de Armas) to join in the conversation because he naively believes she will agree with him, noting that she and her family came into the country “the right way.”
Marta was Harlan’s humble and compassionate nurse, close friend, and confidant. Richard and the rest of the Thrombeys see her as “a good kid” and, essentially, a model minority. They have no idea that her mother is undocumented. They also have no idea which country she and her family immigrated from. Different people throw out different guesses—Uruguay, Ecuador, Brazil—and each of them speak with undue confidence in their knowledge about her, her family, and her experiences. Both Linda and Walt express their regret for Marta not being allowed to attend Harlan’s funeral for some unnamed reason. Independently, they say that they thought she should have been there, but they were “out voted.” Marta is “like family” to them, they say. That is, until she becomes a barrier to them receiving the totality of Harlan’s inheritance—a fortune they think they deserve.
Their hypocrisy reveals itself in more ways than this, especially in their mutual disgust for and disapproval of Ransom (Chris Evans) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell). They regard Ransom as the “black sheep” of the family because he has never had a real job and has always been provided for by his grandfather. While hurling insults like “trustfund jerk” and “entitled prick” at him, they refuse to acknowledge that they are all equally spoiled and doted upon by Harlan. But Ransom is seemingly aware of the reality of the situation and the privilege he holds in a way that the others are not. “My mother built her business ‘from the ground up’ with a million-dollar loan from my grandfather,” he sneers, the only one who tells the truth about the fact that Harlan is the only reason why the rest of the Thrombeys are so “successful” and why them insisting they are “self-made” is complete bullshit.
However, even Ransom carries his own delusions about what his family is supposedly entitled to. He tells Marta, “We allowed you into our home and now you think you can steal it from us… our birthright… our ancestral family home?” Benoit Blanc laughs heartily at this, amused by the audacity, responding with the fact that Harlan “bought this place in the 80s from a Pakistani real estate agent…” But Ransom yells at him to “Shut up!” before he can even finish the sentence, because he doesn’t want to hear or acknowledge the truth. It would go against the narrative he’s created to make himself into a victim and lay claim to something that he never had a right to. He knows that he isn’t “self-made” but he still thinks he has every right to hoard the wealth that he has been given.
The family’s displeasure with Jacob, however, is due to his extreme political leanings as a teenage neo-Nazi and “Alt-Right troll dipshit.” It’s true that he is genuinely unpleasant and overtly racist, even openly calling Marta a “dirty anchor baby” at one point, but the rest of the Thrombeys are also racists. They think themselves better and more highly evolved, but they are all equally terrible, intolerant, entitled, and selfish people too engrossed in their whiteness and class privilege to see how insufferable, toxic, and harmful their entire family actually is. And this means that, if Harlan was murdered, any of them could conceivably be guilty of the crime.
White supremacy and racism manifest themselves in numerous different ways, and the Thrombeys embody many of the White Racist Archetypes—with Meg as the white liberal Feminist Studies major of some unspecified sort who chastises a cop for asking Marta if she is “the help” but turns her back on Marta as soon as doing so benefits her, Ransom as the white ally and “black sheep” who helps Marta escape the rest of the family at one point but with ulterior motives, and Walt as the white savior who offers Marta support but doesn’t want her to have the means to support herself. All of them end up betraying Marta in significant ways and actively trying to harm her.
The Thrombeys all despise and resent each other, eager to pass the buck and the blame to divert attention away from themselves and direct it towards anyone else’s behavior in order to keep their own secrets and distract from their misdeeds, whether they are relevant to the mystery of Harlan’s death or not. What unites the Thrombeys—the only thing that unites them—is the same fundamental understanding of their place in the world, what they believe they are entitled to, and who must be shut out in order for them to retain their power. The same thing unites most white Americans who believe only they get to determine what is “right” and “fair” when it comes to wealth and access.
Besides being a great crime thriller, “Knives Out” proves to be more socially and culturally relevant than one would expect from a Whodunnit mystery such as this. It’s a near-perfect picture representation of white American solidarity against people of color. It directly challenges the myth of the “self-made” wealth-hoarder with a cleverness and levity that feels seminal and timely, while holding up a mirror to show us how shared whiteness operates as a uniting factor of white supremacy and nationalism.
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