Genre films have a unique ability to offer entertaining and fantastical stories, while also being able to offer poignant commentary. This year saw the release of Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece that’s part black comedy, part home invasion thriller, and all-round commentary on class.

Another film that uses genre to tell a very entertaining story while also offering commentary on the time in which it was made is Rian Johnson’s whodunit Knives Out. The film doesn’t hide its politics, but it also doesn’t put them under the spotlight, instead putting enough on screen to spark conversations…the very same conversations that millions of American families had during Thanksgiving, which is exactly when the film was released. 

This post contains some minor spoilers for Knives Out.

A Rich Author Dies On His Birthday

Knives Out begins, like most whodunits, with a murder. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famous author of murder mystery novels, was celebrating his 85th birthday with his dysfunctional family. The next morning, he was dead. The police, and a renowned private eye named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), gather the family in order to figure out who murdered Harlan.  

Everyone in the family is an obvious suspect, so of course no one thinks of Harlan’s nurse and caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas) because she seemed to be the one person who truly cared about Harlan and the one with the least to gain from his murder. When we first see Marta after Harlan’s death, she’s at home with her mother (Marlene Forte) and sister (Shyrley Rodriguez) watching an episode of Murder, She Wrote dubbed in Spanish. In fact, the film’s use of theatricality for its larger-than-life characters does bring to mind telenovelas.

Just like the marketing for the movie has underplayed Ana de Armas’ role in the movie, so does the movie underplay the importance of Marta, who is the driving force in the plot. And of course, at first glance, why would she be the main character? She doesn’t have any reason to have killed Harlan, she isn’t as flamboyant as the other members of the Thrombey clan, she’s not played by Chris Evans, and she pukes when she tries to lie. 

Writer-director Rian Johnson always knew Marta was going to be the center of the film. “I developed the character of Marta slowly after I came up with the initial idea for the movie,” Johnson told /Film over the phone ahead of the theatrical release of Knives Out. “The initial idea was to have someone who is inside the family but also kind of outside of it, and someone that the family would change their perspective on once the screws are set and what they have is threatened. Then I slowly started figuring out who Marta was.” As for Ana de Armas, Johnson told us that that Marta was not only the soul of the film, but the person moving the story along, “She’s not just a boat being drifted down a river, but someone who genuinely tries to navigate this situation as best she can, which we found in Ana.”

Immigrants – We Get the Job Done

Much like the first half of Get Out – before they start literally stealing the bodies of black people – the family of rich racist assholes in Knives Out aren’t straight up white supremacists and they don’t shout “go back to your country” at least not directly. Instead, we see them being nice, or at least thinking they are being nice, to Marta. When she arrives at the house for the police interrogation, Marta is greeted by Harlan’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who hugs Marta, reassures her that she is like part of the family, even if she wasn’t invited to the funeral (Linda says she was outvoted, something everyone else in the family will say throughout the movie). Likewise, one of the characters thinks he’s supportive of immigrants just because he can quote Hamilton.

Even if the movies are vastly different, this treatment of Marta as part of the family, but only when it is convenient for the Thrombey family, brings to mind the relationship between Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and her housemaid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. When she’s with the kids she takes care of, Cleo feels at home, and the kids treat her as part of the family. However, it only takes one request for food, or one small talk about not allowing the maids to leave the lights on after the family goes to bed, to remind them that they are not part of the family. Not really. 

Knives Out doesn’t try to be Roma, and it doesn’t need to be. As Chris Evangelista said in his review, “Johnson’s script is loaded with more twists and turns than a roller coaster” and said it is “one of the year’s most entertaining films.” Indeed, the film has a fantastic and intriguing mystery front-and-center. But beneath that, there’s also this poignant commentary on class divide and of immigration in America. Outside of the one self-proclaimed alt-right troll (Jaeden Martell), the Thrombey family seems to think of itself as a liberal family. They think highly of themselves for hiring an immigrant woman as part of the family, but they speak of Latin American countries as interchangeable. Over the course of the movie, the family members can’t agree on whether Marta’s family is from Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, or Brazil. The film plays it for laugh – we’re meant to think of these characters as dumb, entitled and self-centered – but it also has something to say about the hypocrisy of those who consider themselves liberals yet show no regard for the people actually being affected by current policies. 

Just like Agatha Christie novels, Knives Out feels like a period piece set in modern times. Instead of Hercule Poirot, a colonel, the dowager and the butler, the film uses the equivalent archetypes from 2019 – a social media influencer, a liberal college student, a conservative middle age guy, and even an internet troll. “I didn’t want to recycle the old archetypes or updating them,” Johnson said. “I wanted to find the equivalent for 2019, so I drew from a broad spectrum across American society and landed on the characters we see on the movie.”

Johnson isn’t above acknowledging his resemblance to the Thrombleys. “I’m essentially a Hollywood liberal,” Johnson explained. “So I didn’t want to just point fingers at people on the opposite side of the spectrum, I wanted to self-indict. I wanted to look at myself and say I’m not perfect either.”

An Awkward Dinner

There is one scene that perfectly summarizes the way Knives Out comments on class and immigration without the need to stop the story and preach to the audience. It’s a quick scene. The Thrombeys are gathered in the living room in their huge mansion. Marta finds them in the middle of a conversation about politics. None of them consider themselves racist, yet the entire family is talking about people entering the country “the right way,” with no circumstance being able to justify being undocumented in America (along with a passing mention of children being kept in cages). We see Walter (Michael Shannon) ask Marta about how her family entered the country and Linda tells her that she doesn’t need to answer, but goes ahead and responds on her behalf anyway.

The scene comes as quickly as it goes. While the movie is always on the side of Marta and immigrants, the scene serves to show how much the family argues about political topics while trying to use Marta as a prop, with no regard for how she actually feels about the conversation or how the issues directly affect her. That Knives Out came out on Thanksgiving, at the same time as millions of American families traveled home to their families and had conversations just like this one, isn’t a coincidence.

“I thought that if I’m actually following through on this being a period piece in 2019,” Johnson told us. “Then we could not shy away from this. It would honestly just be weird to have this family not argue about politics because every family I know, including my own, after a few glasses of wine they start diving into politics. It’s just organic to these characters to be fighting about that, because it’s also something we fight about with our families. I felt like putting a caricature of that on the screen where the movie obviously has this perspective on it, but all of us can also laugh at ourselves a little bit.”

The genius of Knives Out is in the way it not only subverts your expectations in terms of taking a whodunit and placing a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of it, but in the way it does that at the same time as it tells this story of an immigrant Latinx woman, something that is still not common in a movie with as many big names as this one. For Johnson, finding a way to convey the film’s commentary without hitting the audience over the head with it was crucial. 

“I think an audience can smell when you’re preaching at them,” Johnson said, before using video games as an analogy for how to convey themes and ideas in genre films. “My favorite video games are the ones without cutscenes. I think the height of the art of creating a game is if the gameplay itself is able to communicate both the rules of the game itself, and also the story of the game as you’re playing along, as opposed to stopping the gameplay and having something that imitates a movie and tells you through a bunch of dialogue what’s happening. What I’m always trying to do with genre is to avoid doing cutscenes. You don’t have to stop and preach at the audience because the very form of what you’re doing is the perspective you’re communicating to them. ”

Indeed, the movie manages to convey a clear criticism of liberal hypocrisy, entitlement, and the microaggressions immigrants face day to day, while still having Daniel Craig delivering speeches about donut holes and Chris Evans telling everyone to eat shit. Knives Out is not only a highly entertaining film, but it has a lot to say. 

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