Knives Out: When Murder Makes You a Better Person

In Rian Johnson’s subversive whodunnit, Knives Out, thinking like a killer actually brings out the best in you.

Knives Out Cast
Photo: Lionsgate

This article contains major Knives Out spoilers. You can find a spoiler-free review here.

Murder is not the worst thing to happen in Rian Johnson’s shrewd, incisive whodunnit Knives Out. The sparkling, secret truth at the heart of Benoit Blanc’s investigation—and how Johnson brilliantly subverts the entire genre—is the even greater depths to which the Thrombey clan can sink to protect their wealth. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies on his 85th birthday, arguably at the peak of his career, which also coincides with the end of a good, long life. By contrast, per Kayti Burt’s deft analysis of the film, the nastiness of privilege that drives Harlan’s potential heirs threatens to destroy the future of Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). They come, with knives out indeed, for Harlan’s sweet, unassuming, seemingly innocent caretaker.

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But just like Daniel Craig’s Blanc plinking a piano key during each suspect’s interrogation, Johnson strikes a discordant key in his whodunnit by (supposedly) answering the “who” in the first act: The caretaker did it. Only Marta didn’t mean to: it was an accident, and more a case of manslaughter than murder, brought about by the tragic mistake of swapping the doses of Harlan’s medication, irreversible due to the missing antidote. While poor Marta comes with her own internal lie detector test, and is prone to projectile vomit if she even tries to obscure the truth, it is shockingly impressive that she manages, through lying by omission, to withhold this explanation from Blanc. With the dramatic irony of audiences knowing what really happened, the blanks are filled in around Marta’s technically true alibi with which Harlan supplied her in his final moments. This changes the entire shape of the murder mystery: If we already know what happened, then what kind of climax could this movie conceivably be building to?

But as Blanc continues digging into each Thrombey’s alibi and constructing contradictory motives, something remarkable happens: Believing herself to be a killer, Marta begins thinking like one. She plays fetch with a dog carrying the broken, incriminating trellis, guilelessly tracks through muddy footprints, and leads Blanc and the police officers on a reckless car chase under a complete misunderstanding. For every suspicious misstep, she has a ready-made explanation, from nerves to sheer naïveté. After all, how should she know any better? She’s Blanc’s wide-eyed mentee, lacking the instincts of intuition or the ability to identify key clues.

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And at first, maybe Marta is lacking in those areas. But from the moment that she manages to avoid confessing and avoid vomiting, that persona becomes a facade to hide behind. She’s still the same Marta, but having passed the first test, suddenly the possibility for self-preservation presents itself. She becomes shrewder at covering her tracks, better attuned to the slightest hint that will bring her house of cards tumbling down, more ruthless in dealing with the inheritance-greedy Thrombeys.

In many ways, it’s an inversion of the murder mystery trope where the killer is revealed to be the person who was initially written off as too slow, too clumsy, or too infirm to have actually committed the crime. But with Marta it was never an act; she stood to gain nothing from Harlan’s death, so Blanc’s initial interview seems almost a formality simply by dint of her being considered “part of the family” for her years of service. 

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By having the viewers follow along from Marta’s perspective, even in believing that she is responsible for Harlan’s death, she becomes a strikingly sympathetic figure. Seemingly the worst possible thing has already happened, so her focus shifts to evading the consequences. After all, she doesn’t deserve to go to prison, to see her undocumented mother deported, and to lose her own future. Emotionally invested in Marta holding onto her life, we forgive her later actions, even when they involve shady blackmail meetings and lying to even the most sympathetic Thrombeys, the ones who had always claimed they would make sure she was taken care of.

But as the investigation becomes more complicated, including the aforementioned blackmail scheme and the medical examiner offices lit ablaze, Marta’s survival instinct comes into sharp focus. While none of these later twists are her doing, they could still brand her as guilty, if she is unable to remain one step ahead of whoever is sowing further chaos. In order to get away with the original crime, Marta must prove herself smarter than whoever is chasing her.

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Marta does not hide behind lies—as she physically cannot—but as soon as her safety is threatened, she begins layering half-truths over herself as protection. Fascinatingly, this puts her in company with more traditional psychopathic killers who often charmingly lead their own stories, such as Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Though not a caretaker like Marta, Ripley nonetheless comes from his own humble means; odd jobs as a piano tuner or bathroom attendant bring him into the orbit of the rich and oblivious, allowing him to study and mimic the mannerisms bred into the upper class who do not even regard him as a person. This ability to read the room, combined with quick thinking, makes Ripley astute at picking up on strangers’ assumptions about where he comes from and who he counts as his friends—letting others draw their own conclusions and then reacting to whatever speculation has transformed into fact. 

In the original Patricia Highsmith story, which was adapted in 1999 into a Matt Damon movie, Tom’s first win is by pretending to be a college chum of Dickie Greenleaf, to the extent that Dickie’s father pays his way to fetch his errant son from an extended vacation in Italy. Once there, Tom plays Dickie and his fiancée Marge like the B-side of a record: If Tom knows the elder Greenleaf, then he must be from high society and therefore worth Dickie’s time. All it takes is a few convenient lunches and sailboat outings, and Tom has wormed his way into Dickie’s life, his sordid confidences, his intimate moments… almost too much.

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The cool mask eventually slips, and to preserve his new way of life Tom invariably winds up killing: first Dickie, then his friend Freddie, whose death eventually leads to Tom later killing his lover Peter. Prior to Dickie’s murder, Tom was accused of being “boring,” yet audiences and readers are anything but disinterested as they are encouraged to root for Tom to survive at the top, even at the expense and lives of those around him.

This stems from an element of crime and mystery fiction that grew past the era defined by Agatha Christie’s often charming, but morally absolute, whodunits. Storytellers like Highmore and director Alfred Hitchcock played with traditional suspense narratives in a way that film critic David Thomson described as making the audience accomplices. Films like The Talented Mr. Ripley, or for that matter Psycho, put audiences in the shoes of a killer, often even giving us more information than the characters so that when something goes wrong, it ratchets up the tension. As with Tom Ripley’s dominos of murder, or Norman Bates covering up the awful deeds of his “Mother,” when Knives Out‘s Marta narrowly hides another clue from Blanc, audiences are complicit in wanting her to get away with it. They also are aware of her subterfuge while the detective remains oblivious.

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read more: Why Rian Johnson Doesn’t Want to Leave the Knives Out Universe

This transformation for Marta can also be as drastic as Mr. Ripley or Norman Bates assuming other identities. The Marta we meet at the start of Knives Out seems, frankly, rather boring herself: jumpy and nightmare-plagued at home; a timid, passive shadow at the Thrombeys’ mansion. Forced to think fast on her feet, working against the considerable brains of Blanc and her eventual co-conspirator, the charismatic Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), Marta has no choice but to become cannier, funnier, more self-possessed. 

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“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” a tearful Tom Ripley tells Peter upon realizing that he will never escape his subterfuge with a clean conscience (not to mention clean hands). But Marta is not trying to remake herself as a different person; she simply becomes a better version of who she already is.

Truly, she becomes the person that Harlan already saw her as. Though Blanc keeps her close to him, ostensibly to pass on his wisdom, in actuality she has already been dubbed Harlan’s sharp protegé from the moment that he walked her through how to get away with his “murder.” Marta thinks through her cover-up like a killer because Harlan got the story started for her, spun out the grisly death and choreographed the steps that would bequeath her an airtight alibi.

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Where Tom Ripley seeks out good fortune, Marta Cabrera stumbles into it: Harlan names her the sole beneficiary of his estate, both financially and literally, handing over the mansion and the money that his heirs had always taken for granted would gild the remainder of their lives. The will reading is the turning point for the movie, the moment that reestablishes who is “good” and who is “bad.”

Before you can say knife, Marta is digging herself in deeper by agreeing to meet with blackmailers and cover up toxicology reports simply to preserve her new standing—and also to have the money to save her undocumented mother from being deported should Harlan’s nasty children come after her. Suddenly, she is becoming more proactive and shrewd in how she handles the Thrombeys instead of taking their word that they’ll “take care of her.” Yet there are limits to her wiliness. Whereas Tom will kill to preserve the illusion, Marta will save housekeeper Fran’s life even if it means sealing her own fate. She has the chance to let Fran die the same way that Harlan supposedly did, by morphine overdose, and in a situation that is intended to frame her for both killings; but rather than decide, like Tom, that two deaths are no worse than one, she does the right thing in calling 911.

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That selfless act separates Marta not only from Tom Ripley, but from the entire Thrombey clan. While even before Harlan’s death, she knew not to trust many of his children or grandchildren—participating in the delicate dance around existing as “the help” without letting them use her as fodder for spouting their politically incorrect nonsense—initially she sees them as, at worst, too blinded by their own privilege to consider anyone beyond their tight sphere. Assholes, sure, but it’s not as if she thinks any of them are killers.

But that’s before, when being a “killer” seems like the worst possible identity. Once Harlan cuts the Thrombeys out of his will, they turn on Marta, revealing their own ruthlessness. But while Marta is unapologetic in her means, so long as the ends protect her family and especially her mother, her employers weaponize that exact compassion against her. Abstract hateful speech about immigrants metastasizes into direct racist attacks on her, from Walt threatening to report her mother to ICE (thanks to Meg) to Ransom—and of course he is the actual murderer of the film—assaulting her with a knife.

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Even though the final twist is that no one killed Harlan but himself—Marta administered the correct doses because she’s good at her job, and Harlan slit his throat to save her even though it was ultimately unnecessary—Marta Cabrera is forever changed for the better. Part of growing as a person is seeing others for who they truly are. Losing Harlan scratches the genteel veneer of the Thrombey family, so that in the final shot, as Marta stands wrapped in a blanket carrying Harlan’s mug, she finally sees them for the first time.

Natalie Zutter is going to institute annual holiday viewings of this movie. Talk murder mysteries with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!