Marta is the Key to Why ‘Knives Out’ (2020) is so Brilliant

It hasn’t taken long for writer/director Rian Johnson to snag an Oscar nomination. After only five feature films, Johnson will be competing for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars in a few days time for Knives Out: a cunningly designed whodunnit that has a lot more under the hood than a modern Agatha Christie tribute. This isn’t the first time Johnson has written a narrative that subverts expectations, however. In fact, it seems to be his trademark. Back in 2005 he exploded onto the scene with Brick and toyed with the noir genre. His next project, con movie The Brothers Bloom, didn’t hit the mark so much, but then in 2012 we got Looper: a time travel film that isn’t about time travel. The marketing suggested a standard sci-fi thriller but what we really got is a smartly designed story focused on well-written characters. Then, of course, Johnson split the world’s biggest fandom wide-open with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, because he dared (and succeeded) to challenge the series’ loyal fans with unexpected but genuinely thrilling character developments and narrative themes. With his latest project, Johnson has cemented his brand of storytelling: injecting a well-trodden genre with modern themes and focusing on character design to twist the narrative into new directions. The key ingredient with Knives Out, however, is its protagonist: Marta (Ana de Armas).

You’d be forgiven if you went into Knives Out expecting a true ensemble piece, or to see the mystery unfold through the eyes of Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). The trailers and marketing hinted at a colourful cast of potential suspects, the Thrombey family, who’s crime novelist patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate on the night of his 85th birthday. Stereotypically, a murder mystery would follow the detective gathering clues and solving the case, but in Knives Out we see events unfold through the eyes of pure-hearted family nurse Marta. After getting to know each of the players we finally start to hear Marta’s account of the fateful night at the party. This is where the narrative completely shifts and expectations are subverted. Marta remembers the truth of what happened: she accidentally overdosed Harlan and with little time left, he decides to commit suicide to cover her tracks. It is a brave move for a murder mystery to reveal the murder so early on in the story and it changes the question from who murdered Harlan to who hired Detective Blanc to investigate the suicide? This narrative twist would not happen if Blanc was the protagonist of the film and it pushes Marta into the spotlight, helping to focus on the messages and idea Johnson wants to tell us about race and class.

The Thrombey’s are an eccentric family, brilliantly played by a star-studded cast who are clearly having a blast. A big theme in traditional murder mysteries is class, and it definitely runs throughout Knives Out, as explained in Jacinda Perez’s piece on the representation of wealth and privilege in 2019 films.The Thrombey family leech off the fortune Harlan worked hard for and assume they have a birth right to wealth and comfort. The running gag of each family member not remembering what country Marta is from acts as a scathing commentary of Americans seeing foreigners as just other beings and not fully formed people. Seeing things from Marta’s point of view further exemplifies the problem with this indirect racism. Johnson updates the whodunnit to reflect the modern world and its issues, such as race and culture.

Martha (Ana de Armas) sitting opposite a man, eating in a restaurant. From the film Knives Out.
Image courtesy of Lionsgate Films

One scene that really paints the Thrombey’s as a family with outdated and unethical viewpoints is that of the house party during Marta’s flashback. The family are gathered round having a conversation over different social issues when Marta is dragged into the increasingly argumentative debate. Joni (Toni Collette) wants to protect undocumented immigrants, including the likes of Marta’s mother, but Richard (Don Johnson) disagrees and believes they should follow the law. Marta is unable to get involved after Richard tries to get her in on the discussion as she can’t let slip the truth of her family’s status. The forced silenced due to her vomiting-when-telling-a-lie condition suggests that foreigners don’t seem to have a say in these conversations that they clearly should be a part of. They are fearful of these people in a position of power.

The issue worsens, however. After the reading of Harlan’s will and hearing that Marta will inherit everything of his, the whole family turn on her. None of them were ever truly a friend, but now the family actively use their status and Marta’s background to get what they want. Walt (Michael Shannon) threatens to report Marta’s mother to authorities for being an undocumented immigrant. Meg (Katherine Langford), who Marta and even the viewer sees as an understanding friend, sides with the family and attempts to get the fortune back from her. This is all relevant social commentary to the issues we face today, written well into the narrative and character arcs, but think about who a large portion of the audience who went to see Knives Out are: white people from older generations with wealth and power. Johnson takes a shot at the reality of a lot of white families’ behaviours and attitudes towards immigrants and non-white people: using them to seem more empathetic and understanding whilst unknowingly showing signs of micro-aggressions. 

The Thrombey’s value money and wealth above all else and do anything they can to claim it, but in the end it’s Marta who ends up on top. Marta is key as the protagonist because the impact of these messages would be lost if we didn’t have that close connection with the character and her triumphant ending makes the story so satisfying. Johnson has, again, crafted a story that challenges the audience in multiple ways all thanks to Marta. The narrative structure serves as a way to shock the audience and put a spin on the genre which leads to an engaging character arc. The social commentary is at once funny and grounded in reality, which adds to the drama but also holds up a mirror to certain audiences, which simply wouldn’t work as well if we didn’t emphasise with Marta and get into her headspace. Knives Out will soon become a modern classic; even if it doesn’t pick up an Academy Award, it should stand tall beside the best murder mysteries. One thing is for sure though, it will be exciting to see what tricks Johnson has up his sleeve with whatever story he decides to tell next.