WARNING: The Following Contains Spoilers for Knives Out
Early on in Knives Out, Ana De Armas’ character is introduced in a scene involving her sister watching a ‘novela’-esque show that her mother tells her to turn off for the sake of Marta. In this amount of time we see how this family lives, Marta has a cracked phone screen, and still lives with her family. In contrast, the Thrombey family when introduced are all claiming they were “self-made”, despite their family fortune being from their father. Rian Johnson is often associated with the term ‘subversion’ in his films, taking a genre and then flipping it on its head. Knives Out continues the pattern, but with an empathetic edge. Marta is the heart of the entire film, and is picked specifically for the middle twist of the film, that she’s actually what appears to be the cause of murder herself.
Enter Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a detective who appears at first to be a shrouded figure with unknown intentions, ends up being the reason why the film is as empathetic as it is. Blanc isn’t like the others in the way he treats Marta, he’s kind, endearing, and consistently refers to her as ‘Watson’. Giving away the center of the mystery in the middle of the film is what allows the real heart and drive to take place, it’s about immigrant’s drive in America and the meaning of being ‘self-made’.
The polar opposite of the movie’s message, Ransom (Chris Evans) enters the picture, with a scene stealing performance (like much of the film’s major players) as the antithesis of the film. Ransom is the polar opposite of Marta; doesn’t work, makes the houseworkers call him Hugh, plainly as the characters call it, “he’s an asshole.” As the real culprit, this lands the third act another twist. Hugh was behind the attempt of framing Marta. How this changes the course of the whole thing is taking the murder mystery’s normal reveal and placing it in the middle. Traditionally you’d have an introduction to everyone, the mystery at hand, the person solving it, and then the big reveal at the end. In one of the film’s best moments, Blanc goes on a long monologue exposing Ransom’s ‘Donut Hole’ scheme and incites the confession from him. Marta and Blanc’s relationship guide the film to be one with disarming emotion. The political subtext is a stronger drive in the film than on a surface level, on a first viewing, not knowing that Blanc is on Marta’s side, it gives her entire drive a sense of urgency, not losing her mother. The family doesn’t care about this, Michael Shannon’s character Walt Thrombey instead even uses it as a form of blackmail. The Thrombey’s aren’t there to be accepting or even helpful. They lie in antagonism because they’re ‘the rich’. They’d only do whatever they could if it meant benefiting themselves.
The central antagonist of the film, ‘the rich’ as defined by the Thrombey’s is where Rian Johnson fully places his subversion. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it’s about the main hero being flawed. In Brick, it’s the detective case being investigated within a high school. Here, it’s about empathy, about hard work and what it actually means to be “self-made”. In a regular murder mystery it’d be, ‘the nurse did it in the study with morphine’. Here it’s ‘the nurse did it, but was framed, so a member of the family could still get his cut of the fortune’. In that film, Blanc would be the real protagonist, the man who’d put away Marta for killing the man she took care of. This film here however, is about understanding. Towards the very end of the film Blanc say to Marta “You are a good nurse”. Caring about others is the central idea of Knives Out. The idea of being a good person, and being there for others. By being about compassion for others, regardless of where they come from. That’s where the true subversion lies in Knives Out.