As we continue our perilous journey through the twenty-first century, it seems clear that the idea of satire as it was previously understood is essentially dead. Effective satire requires not just a coherent target, but also some common framework of experience; a lens of viewing society we all recognize, through which the effective satirist can lampoon that which is both outrageous and mundane. Satire presents the world as we assume it to be, but twisted so as to reveal the perversity of our assumptions. Satire, ultimately, is a tool through which one person can turn to another and say, “look, now do you understand my point of view?”
There is no hope of such effectively argumentative satire in our current cultural climate. Our main political parties don’t just possess different perspectives, they occupy different realities; in the post-truth, fake-news era, anything you wish to disbelieve is simply not true. Through a combination of economic self-interest and tribal identification, millions of Americans have constructed a reality entirely out of their egos and anxieties. There is no longer any way for satire to “pull the veil from over their eyes,” because they believe the veil to be reality so strongly that any attempts at genuine communication will simply parse as propaganda. They trust their beliefs over their eyes; they have no use for reality any more.
In light of this, recent works of film satire have begun to take a more literal, unambiguous approach to their messaging, serving more as rallying calls for the righteous than wakeup calls for the proudly misled. Ready or Not concludes a cathartic bloodbath with an outright exhalation of “fucking rich people,” while Jordan Peele’s journey from Get Out to Us sees him recalibrating from Obama-era post-racial optimism to race-conscious class war. And in Knives Out, Rian Johnson takes his own stab (forgive me) at this model, illustrating the flexibility of class loyalty and inevitability of class conflict in times of crisis. “Blood might be thicker than water,” says Johnson, “but wealth is thickest of all.”
Knives Out attempts to trick its audience in a variety of ways, but its first, most thematically essential act of subterfuge is its effort to draw distinction between the various members of the Thrombey clan. Eldest daughter Linda is hard-edged and educated, a pure exemplar of New England royalty, while her husband Richard is a buffoon who wields his self-interest and cretinism with the gusto of Father Trump himself. Daughter-in-law Joni is a new age crank living off a family stipend; youngest son Walt attempts to parley his stewardship of his father’s empire into genuine leadership, but can only affect a simpering paternalism. The three children, Ransom, Meg, and Jacob, all hate each other and the family: Ransom’s a joyriding son of privilege, Meg has ostensibly embraced progressive politics, and Jacob is an alt-right neo-nazi twerp.
None of this, not one fucking solitary detail, ultimately matters. Knives Out makes a grand show of drawing distinctions between these family members, from cute flourishes like Linda actually reading the New Yorker articles that Joni only sees on twitter, to the genuine moral animosity that divides Meg and Jacob. Their personalities are further contrasted in the early film by their relationship with Marta, the deceased scion Harlan’s maid, and our actual protagonist. Richard applauds her for immigrating the “right” way (she didn’t), Walt treats her like a beloved pet, and Meg seems to genuinely sympathize with her tenuous circumstances. None of this matters. None of it means a thing.
Much like the distinctions between its various suspects, Knives Out’s very structure as a murder mystery is also an act of misdirection. Knives Out is undeniably Johnson’s love letter to winding, intricate murder mysteries. The film encourages you to love mysteries just like Harlan did, inviting you to visit a house full of secret passages and alcoves, where the true solution hides just beyond some trap door. And yet, in spite of this story possessing all the attributes of a traditional mystery narrative, the actual investigation process is all anxiety. Situated as we are on the side of the earnest but guilty-looking Marta, we cannot enjoy the detective’s slow arc towards discovery. What’s more, if this is supposed to be a mystery, why are we told how Harlan dies within the first act?
The answer for that is simple: mysteries are lies. Mystery dramas flatter our belief in truth and justice, assuring us that careful investigation will always result in a positive and unambiguous answer. When an unfathomable mystery resolves into an undeniable guilty party, we are comforted with the hope that order can be drawn from chaos. When the detective proudly reveals the killer, we are assured that righteous truth can emerge from daily uncertainty, that justice will ultimately prevail, and that lies are always, ultimately inferior to the truth.
Unfortunately, none of this is true. In spite of Knives Out’s winding path and complex web of characters, the ultimate antagonist of the film is the social order that empowers the entire Thrombey family. Harlan’s children may not have directly killed him, but they were eager to profit from his death – in fact, as the drama eventually reveals, every single one of his descendants was set to benefit from his demise. Meg and Jacob may despise each other’s presentation, but when the chips are down, they both pledge allegiance to the family’s inheritance. Ultimately, Ransom seems not to be the worst of them, but simply the most honest: all of them believe in their own inherent nobility, he’s simply the first to act in preservation of it.
And just as the course of the drama challenges our understanding of the Thrombeys, so does it complicate our belief in justice. Even when we believed Marta’s mistake actually killed Harlan, we still didn’t want her to be punished for it; after all, she was the only member of the family who really, truly cared for him. Mysteries condition us to believe that truth and justice are naturally intertwined, but Knives Out insists the story is more complicated, and that truth itself can be molded by power. Marta shifts from a witness to a suspect to a criminal to a queen, her journey bearing little connection to the law’s investigation of the case. Through the frank irrelevance of Harlan’s actual death to the meat of this drama, Johnson scorns the idea that resolution and justice are aligned, and that cases are “solved,” rather than simply brought to a point where our conclusions flatter our initial assumptions.
After all, if the law had its way, Ransom’s ploy would likely have succeeded. His ultimate failing is his iron belief in his own class supremacy, in the idea that class superiority will triumph over any hurdles it is presented with. So sure is he of his wealth-borne righteousness that he actually calls in a detective to investigate his own murder, certain that “justice” as he envisions it will prevail. But Ransom is only noteworthy in how his boldness drives him to murderous action; ultimately, all of the Thrombeys share his delusion of greatness, and are equally stunned to find themselves on the far side of the family fortune.
This conclusion, like much of the film, is an optimistic, unrealistic reverie, a victory only realized through larger-than-life heroes like Benoit Blanc. It’s the natural result of a film built on contradictions, a film which loves its quirky characters while understanding they are functionally identical, a film which revels in its mysteries while knowing justice is decided by the hand on the scale. But in this age of hopeless class disparities, trapped in a world whose overseers seem determined to destroy both it and us, isn’t it fair to indulge in a little fantasy? The real world and its disappointments are always waiting, so for just a moment, let us embrace the fantasy that verdicts are deduced rather than purchased, and that wealth can be humbled by righteousness.
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