Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

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