“Playing life like a game without consequence, until you can’t tell the difference between a stage prop and a real knife.”

WARNING: This post will contain major SPOILERS for Knives Out.  DO NOT read it until after you have watched the movie. Part of what is great about the movie is how it constantly subverts expectations.

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Knives Out (Johnson, 2019) is a satire of white privilege. It is a critique of those like the Thromby family who think their place at the top of the social hierarchy is due to their individual merit instead of an inheritance. In the film all the characters think of themselves as “self-made” businesspeople, despite the fact that they each built their businesses from loans they got from their patriarch Harlan Thromby. Knives Out contrasts the Thromby family with Marta Cabrera, a kind-hearted and hard working young woman who has been the literal caretaker and “friend” Harlan needed while his children and grandchildren were complacently living off the fortune he made through his own talent and hard work. The household is an image of America, founded by the geniuses of the past whose descendants have lost touch with their heritage and traditions. They have forgotten what it meant to be American in the first place. Marta is the immigrant who deserves to be a part of the America the founders built, because she truly embodies the American dream they envisioned all along.

After the election of Donald Trump there was a lot of discussion among the elites about whose fault it was that such an undemocratic thug could have become president. His lack of reverence for traditional American values — heck, his lack of reverence for anything — seemed to threaten the very survival of the American experiment in democracy. How could this have happened? Whose fault is this? In Knives Out, Rian Johnson has made a movie about this question. A whodunnit. The answer is that the people in power dunnit to themselves.  It was the system itself — the game — not the particular players that has led to the decline of American values. Those who thought the American Way was a game of competition undermined the very national heritage they claim to love. As Detective Benoit Blanc tells Marta in the end, she won by not trying to win but trying to be kind and beautiful.

It is fun to watch Chris Evans play against his Captain America image here.  In fact I’m convinced that Johnson cast Evans because he was Captain America. It is America itself — or at least the self-appointed heroes who see it as their job to protect the American Way — that was threatened by an immigrant and was willing to do anything to maintain the status quo. After Marta was named the sole heir of the Thromby fortune, the family should have known that she would take care of them. They needn’t have felt threatened. But it wasn’t about their welfare or even the money. It was about control. They couldn’t bear the thought of her being in charge. Just like some people couldn’t bear the thought of a non-white president and even made up rumors that he must be an immigrant. 

As more of the country is being publicly led by non-white people — including central cultural myths like Star Wars — those committed to white supremacy feel like their heritage, their country, their inheritance, and their home itself is being “stolen” from them. But how exactly has it been stolen?  Because women and immigrants and former slaves worked hard and refused to play the patriarchal game that those in power insist we have to play? As the family lawyer says, imagining how the family might try to convince a judge that Marta manipulated Harlan into making her sole heir: “Your honor, She endeared herself to him through hard work and good humor.”

Harlan says that his grandson Ransom is the most like him: “Oh, there’s so much of me in that kid. Confident, stupid. I don’t know, protected. Playing life like a game without consequence, until you can’t tell the difference between a stage prop and a real knife.” They both play complicated games. Ransom is the only one who can beat the old man at go. It shouldn’t be surprising that Ransom has a plan to outsmart the family founder’s attempt to pass his fortune on to a new sort of American — one who actually deserves to be the caretaker of the American legacy, because she will use it to benefit everyone not just to protect her own privilege.

But Ransom’s game is foiled by Marta who never plays the game. Every time she has a choice to make she chooses to do the right and good thing instead of the self-interested thing that ransom predicts she will do in setting up his scheme. She doesn’t operate according to an economist’s assumption that the only “rational” action is self-interestedness. Marta foils Ransom’s “game theory” by being a good person — morally good and good at her job. She didn’t “steal” the inheritance. She earned her way into the family by being hardworking and kind. And in the end she was the only one worthy of inheriting the patriarch’s power.

Benoit Blanc says follows the arc of gravity’s rainbow: “I observe the facts, without biases of the head or heart. I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.” and when he gets there the truth reveals itself. This time the force of “natural law” led to Marta, but when the truth is revealed it shows her to be innocent. The arc of history led to this shift in power, moving those on the margin to the center of culture. They are the true Americans who the country (indeed western civilization, including Christianity) has been trying to produce since its inception, not an invasion from a foreigner. The true American Way is the way of inclusion and cooperation not competition.

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