‘Knives Out’ Is Actually a Fantasy, Not a Comedy
The Oscar-nominated film imagines a world where consequences exist for the privileged
After college, I moved to the tiny city of Sitka, Alaska, to work as a tutor at a local university. During the cold, dark, rainy winter months, you could find many of Sitka’s younger folks at weekend game nights. These were hosted by one of my coworkers, a mild-mannered fanatic with hundreds of games tucked away in cabinets. Some time has passed, but I still think about these enjoyable evenings anytime the mere suggestion of board games comes up, which is more often than you’d think: In just the past couple years, board games were at the center of at least two wide-release movies — 2018’s Game Night and 2019’s Ready or Not — and appeared briefly in a third, last year’s Knives Out.
In that last film (nominated this year for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards), the death of acclaimed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey turns into a wild whodunit that unearths some of the unspoken tensions among Harlan, his family, and his house staff. Amid the movie’s many twists and turns, a board game is featured in a crucial flashback scene. Moments before Harlan’s death, he and his nurse, Marta Cabrera, are playing their customary nightly game of Go. We later find out that only Marta and Harlan’s grandson, Ransom, were ever able to beat Harlan at Go — a fact that foreshadows their clash at the film’s climax.
The symbolism is not meant to be subtle. Throughout the rest of the movie, the word “game” is thrown around, often figuratively and in reference to Harlan’s motives. The first mention goes to Linda, Harlan’s daughter, who says while being interviewed by the police, “We had our own secret way of communicating. You had to find that with dad. You had to find a game to play with him.” Later, before the memorial service, Linda shrewdly observes, “I was just thinking about Dad’s games. This all feels like one.”
To see this inheritance plot as a “game” is to obscure the consequences.
In college, I learned that my white and wealthy peers would turn any semi-impactful decision — the election of a new editor at our school paper, for instance — into a small battle, involving strategizing, politicking, and building teams. I was unprepared for this. I’d always imagined that we were all on the same team, working toward a common goal and trying to do right by our organization. The sneak attacks, the bluffs, the switched alliances — they caught me by surprise. As did my opponents’ insistence on reverting to friendly normalcy after they inevitably won. They never seemed to understand why I wallowed and seethed after, say, failing to add diversity to the incoming board of an organization. To them, I appeared to be a sore loser.
In Knives Out, the stakes are much higher. During a critical flashback in the film, Harlan says of Ransom: “Jesus, there’s so much of me in that kid. Confident, stupid, I dunno. Protected. Playing life like a game without consequence.” The irony is that, moments later, he will (with the best of intentions) ensnare Marta in a game with consequences, albeit only really for her. Watching the stressful events of the movie unfold, I wondered: Is there such a thing as a game of consequence for the likes of the Thrombeys? Likely not — isn’t that why the privileged play these games to begin with? To escape, to have some fun? To see this inheritance plot as a “game” is to obscure the consequences — the worst of which is not the loss of a fortune or an inability to attend a fancy school but the terrorizing of a young immigrant whose family lives in precarity.
Marta, then, is both a subject and an object in the game, simultaneously a player and a pawn. The story turns on her moment of rebellion, her epic refusal to play. The second time I watched the movie, I cried when Marta attempts to save the housekeeper, Fran, and again when the detective on the case, Blanc, recounts these events, praising Marta for her “good heart.” These scenes of the film have received criticism for leaning hard into “good immigrant tropes.” I understand and agree with this critique to an extent, especially considering how, historically speaking, immigrants and other marginalized folks who resisted unjust rules — i.e., through protest — were often punished, not rewarded or called “good.”
But then, Marta makes her final move: lying about Fran’s death to get Ransom’s confession. It’s a play that signals her late re-entry to the game — on her terms. Marta succeeds where I failed: She wins a rigged game by figuring out how to counter-rig it in her favor. She’s now bucked every other player’s versions of the game, most recently Blanc’s. She’s not playing by the rules of a “good immigrant.” Lying doesn’t make her “bad,” but her vindictiveness and cunning add a layer of moral complication.
Blanc seems to recognize this. In one of the film’s final scenes, he tells her one last time, “You won not by playing Harlan’s way, but yours.” During my rewatch, I connected this with an earlier exchange, again taking place in that all-important flashback. The Go game has begun, and Harlan exclaims in anguish, “Why can’t I beat you at this game?” “Because I’m not playing to beat you,” Marta replies, smiling. “I’m playing to build a beautiful pattern.”
Unlike the Thrombeys, Marta doesn’t care about power and control. I think about how I might have finished that thought: “I’m not playing to beat you, I’m playing to _______.” It’s a futile exercise: I’m usually playing to win, if for no other reason than to overcome my shame from previous losses.
I flashback to game night in Sitka, where groups of educated white and Asian millennials huddled around tables, sipping beers and snacking on chips and guac. The 2016 election was about to happen or perhaps it already had. We were certainly all frightened, but we were far away from those who would suffer real consequences. That being said, we weren’t the Thrombeys. We were underpaid and hungry; we certainly had no control over the fates of others. We were just trying to pass the time and enjoy each other’s company. You might say we were establishing a beautiful pattern: the habit of meeting weekly with fellow transients for an evening of warmth and play.