Knives Out and the Villainy of Privilege

There's an answer to the "whodunit" in Rian Johnson's Knives Out. But the real villain among its family is white, class privilege.

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

Walking into Knives Out, a delightful murder mystery as fun as it is clever, you’d be forgiven for thinking the “it” in the “whodunnit” framework refers to the apparent murder at the center of the film’s promotional material. Sure, Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) death the night of his 85th birthday party drives the plot, but that’s not the “it” director and writer Rian Johnson is most interested in dissecting. Instead Johnson turns his masterful lens on a different crime: the sense of entitlement and abuse of power that grow from unchecked privilege. In this way, the film’s villainy doesn’t stem from something inherent in an individual’s nature, but rather from the nature of structural inequality itself.

In Knives Out, we have a whole host of rich, white antagonists to engage with. While Chris Evans‘ Ransom may have turned out to be the Thrombey capable of murder most foul, he is far from the only Thrombey guilty of something ugly, and that truth is where Knives Out finds its thematic legs. Hence the more interesting outcome is not in finding out the identity of the killer—we already know who is guilty, and of what fairly early on—but rather in seeing what the Thrombey family looks like when they are faced with the possibility of a slightly less privileged future. (Because, let’s be real, even without the fortune, this family is going to be doing great by most people’s standards.)

In some ways, it’s almost an accidental metaphor for real-life billionaires reacting to Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax plan, freaking out at the prospect of even a degree of their massive wealth being diminished. For this reason, Knives Out stands apart from most mainstream films with its sociopolitical commentary feeling as if it couldn’t be made at any other point in time. 

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This film’s marketing campaign leverages its all-star cast to sell the film, which serves to get butts in theater seats, but also works as a helpful narrative misdirect. If you went into this movie thinking any of its big names would be at its center, then you would have been wrong. While this is an ensemble film with stellar performances across the board, Marta, who is played bby Cuban-born actress Ana de Armas, is solidly at its center, which is to say she is the character whose perspective the audience is most granted.

The film lures us in with a more traditional murder mystery plot, keeping our allegiances casual and our knowledge measured for most of the first act, before subverting murder mystery structure entirely and not only telling us exactly whodunnit, but encouraging us to root for the “killer.” This allegiance is not simply a case of wanting her to “get away with it,” but also a case of the victim—the character usually standing in the way, morally, of rooting for the killer—wanted her to get away with it too. Harlan slits his own throat so as to hide the fact that Marta seemingly gave him a lethal amount of the wrong medication. With Harlan’s blessing, we’re off, hanging with kind, sweet, and pretty damn clever Marta as she works to throw Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) off of his investigative game. 

By removing so many of the traditional questions from the murder mystery plot (at least until we get the later twists), the viewer is able to turn their attention to the more heinous, insidious, and commonplace crime of the film: the way the members of the Thrombey family treat Marta, behavior deeply rooted in racism, classism, and xenophobia. There are now two crimes waiting to be judged and potentially punished: First, we have the crime of the actions directly leading to Harlan’s untimely death, which we want Marta to escape punishment from; and second, we have the “crime” of the Thrombeys’ privilege, which we as viewers are encouraged to view much more harshly. That is pretty damn subversive.

For Johnson, the Thrombeys aren’t only the perpertrators of this abuse of power, they are also portrayed as victims of their own privilege—a nuance most mainstream stories fail to explore. If the true villain in Knives Out (to borrow a construct from my The Last Jedi analysis) is privilege—the kind that will eat you from the inside out, if you try to hold onto it—then Thrombeys suffer at its hand too. Privilege is the villain here, but it’s not solely because those with disproportionate wealth attack our protagonist Marta in defense of it; it’s because of what it does to the people who are born into it. The fear, entitlement, and bitter selfishness that privilege can and does nurture. Knives Out is a campaign for a 100 percent inheritance tax, not only for how the most vulnerable of our country’s inhabitants might benefit from that redistribution of wealth, but also for the sake of the privileged who are rotting from the inside out, and taking our country and world with them.

In exploring the corrupting nature of privilege, Johnson walks a fine line. He never suggests that there is no comfort to be found in having social and economic power, nor that there isn’t fear and insecurity to be found in the lacking of it (represented chiefly by Marta’s very valid fears concerning her undocumented mother), but the film doesn’t waste too much time glorifying the pros of being white and rich, which has been represented in countless other films. Rather Knives Out spends its time dissecting how horrific being privileged can be, the ways in which it strips you of your decency and makes you ugly, even to the people you love.

read more: Why Daniel Craig and Jamie Lee Curtis Did Knives Out

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In The Last Jedi, Johnson used Kylo Ren as a way to articulate the dangers of toxic masculinity. In Knives Out, he does something similar with that often terrifying combination of whiteness and wealth, using the various members of the Thrombey family to show just how ugly privilege can be. In both cases, Johnson refuses to give too much narrative space to his most problematic and powerful characters, avoiding the familiar trap of glorifying power–especially when it is being abused.

The Thrombey family is a particularly northeastern kind of privileged. While the film never explicitly states they are in Massachusetts (where the movie was filmed), the mentions of Boston and Smith College suggest it. Blanc, a white man from the indeterminate South, works as the perfect foil for the northern Thrombey family, who depicts the kind of white racism that exists in New England, where we too often believe ourselves to be past that institutional racism business–a denial that only serves to perpetuate structural inequalities. New England was on the right side of that Civil War. Never mind the fact that, in Boston, the median net worth for African American households (not including immigrants) is just $8, compared to white household’s $247,500.

That being said, Knives Out depicts that there is not just one flavor of racist, classist entitlement—though they certainly have things in common. The pro-Trump, inyour face racism practiced by Richard (Don Johnson) is certainly different from the millennial-tinged “white feminism” of Meg (Katherine Langford).  However, when push comes to shove, they turn out to not be that different in substantive action. When Meg’s college plans are threatened by the reading of Harlan’s will, she is as desperate to keep the fortune in the family as anyone, using her influence to encourage Marta to renounce the inheritance. And even with assurances that her college will be paid for, if not much else, she then outs Marta’s mother as undocumented to the rest of her family.

Previously, Meg had been the family member who elbowed a promise out of the family to “look after” Marta—who knows how that would have played out. But as the film does a good job of articulating, having someone bestow resources upon you at their discretion is not the same thing as having access to those resources yourself. It’s the difference between the family hiring lawyers to make sure Marta’s mother isn’t deported and Marta hiring a lawyer to do it herself. In the first scenario, Marta is beholden, in some way, to the Thrombeys. Therefore they have control over the situation and, to a certain extent, over Marta herself. In the second, they are stripped of that power.

This family feels entitled to everything they have earned, even though they haven’t earned it at all. Linda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) image is defined by her identity as a “self-made woman,” someone who earned everything she has by working hard and being good at what she does (real estate moguling)—not like her brother Walt (Michael Shannon), who only ever worked for her father’s already successful publishing house. Part way through the movie, however, we learn that Linda started her business with a million-dollar loan from her father—another direct reference to He Who Must Not Be Named.

Cleverly, the Thrombeys are antagonists without ever getting to revel in their own power, at least not properly. Knives Out refuses to do the cheap, easy thing of calling powerful people pathetic for the ways in which they abuse their power but also spending too much time depicting that abuse. To call someone sad for their abuse of power, but also to give them the power of the narrative (most especially when it is framed in aspirational ways) is a muddled message; we can’t really believe it. Because if these characters are so pathetic, then why are we paying so much glorious attention to them?

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Marta “wins,” if we can even use that language, because she refuses to play the game, as Blanc explains during the film’s climax. The game in question? Holding onto as much power as possible, and protecting it at almost any cost. Marta chooses her humanity over her power, and she is an outlier for it. Detective Blanc must explicitly state this theme for us, again and again, because our pop culture language is so unpracticed at telling stories in this way. Rian Johnson isn’t taking any chances. Not after Star Wars.

Marta also “wins” because she is smart. The final nail in Ransom’s coffin is Marta’s ability to successfully lie about the status of Fran, another housekeepr who Ransom poisoned. As a writer and director, Johnson doesn’t make the common mistake of conflating the qualities of kindness and gullibility. Just because Marta has empathy for this family doesn’t mean she doesn’t see them for what they are: entitled assholes. She knows their capacity for cruelty better than anyone else because, as someone with far less privilege, she has been subjected to it again and again—perhaps best exemplified by a running gag in which none of the family members can remember (read: has ever bothered to find out) which country Marta’s family immigrated from.

Marta already knows to try to duck away when Richard swings around to his immigration policy perspective while espousing the rhetoric of the current president, because he will use her to make his point without ever actually giving her the space to speak her mind. He doesn’t care what she actually thinks because he doesn’t believe she has any power to turn that opinion into action that could affect him. To Richard, Marta isn’t a person; she’s a prop, something to be pulled out when he needs something, like to make a point. To people like Richard, Marta doesn’t have enough power to be granted an opinion, much less personhood.

Until she does, of course. To be clear: nothing about Marta’s personhood changes when Harlan’s will is read, other than her access to resources. In that moment, she becomes visible to the Thrombey family, she becomes real to them in her recognizable privilege. They turn their hungry gazes on her. They see her—some of them, for the first time. All of them, for the first time fully.

Harlan saw Marta before that. In Knives Out, entitlement is depiced as the province of youth—which is to say anyone under the age of 85. (It seems important to note, at this point, that, in real life, 85-year-olds are just as likely to be racist, classist assholes.) In another subversion of traditional mainstream pop culture, age is equated with wisdom. The jovial, good-natured, and socially self-aware Harlan is easily the most likeable Thrombey in the film. He sees Marta’s value as a kind, compassionate, and fun companion where the rest of his family cannot.

read more: Frozen 2 and Facing the Sins of Our Past

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It is implied that Harlan has not always been like this, when he compares his younger self to Ransom, the most entitled character of the lot. With this comparison, it is suggested that age has brought about the self-reflection on privilege that entitled youth cannot. With this knowledge, Harlan sets about trying to kickstart that journey of self-awareness in his family by taking away their access to his vast resources. For him and the movie, this is an act of love. For most of the Thrombey clan, however, who have yet to gain the kind of wisdom Harlan has found in his 80s and through his relationship with Marta, it is an act of the utmost betrayal. (Notably, Harlan wasn’t depicted to have any plans to give up any of his own power prior to his death.)

In the case of Great Nana Thrombey—who is “cursed” with not only being much older than Harlan, but also a woman—the character’s value must be spelled out for us. At first, her character seemingly exists solely to act as an age-ist punchline, her relative deafness and blindness played for laughs. But the joke is on the viewer when Johnson pulls the rug out from under anyone laughing and shows Blanc treating Nana with sincere sorrow for the loss of her son and an earnest respect for the years she’s lived, and the insight she has no doubt gleaned from that century of experience. Here, wisdom is not framed as an accumulation of knowledge, but rather as a capacity for depth of feeling—a quality most of the Thrombey are shown to lack but Marta has in spades.

In the end, Johnson doesn’t propose to eat the rich, but rather gives them at least the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption. Ransom should and must be punished for his crimes, but Johnson leaves the fate of the rest of the Thrombeys in Marta’s kind hands, which is probably more than they deserve.  “I should help them, right?” Marta asks Blanc and it seems like she is strongly considering it. Because she’s not like the Thrombeys. She didn’t grow up believing that she is better or worse than anyone else as a direct result of the circumstances of her birth.

Who knows? Maybe, after the credits have rolled, the story continues with Marta cutting off the Thrombeys completely, but I don’t think that’s what happens next. (My own personal head canon? They move to Schitt’s Creek and begin their rehabilitation alongside the Rozes.) Because while oppressors are partially fueled by the intense fear that the more equitable redistribution of resources and power would result in the oppressors becoming the oppressed, there are other ways forward.

In our current system of inequality, those in power need to believe, on some level, that those without power are less deserving of it in order to maintain the status quo. But “status quo” not need be a hopeless phrase; there are other systems possible, and in Johnson’s wildly empathetic stories, we see a glimmer of those possible futures.

Even with his most despicable of villains—like Knives Out‘s Ransom—he refuses to depict their villainy as inherent to their nature. Instead he shows how the toxicities of worlds, real (Knives Out) and imagined (The Last Jedi), are likely to nurture villainy within us. The moral suggests that, in order to make the world a better place, we need to make it a more equal one. It is so bold as to suggest that power doesn’t need to corrupt. That those who understand the responsibility of power could make different, kinder choices with it. In a genre that depends at least partially on an ending that surprises, this may be the most unpredictable outcome of all.

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