Knives Out: When Murder Makes You a Better Person

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And at first, maybe Marta is lacking in those areas. But from the moment that she manages to avoid confessing and avoid vomiting, that persona becomes a facade to hide behind. She’s still the same Marta, but having passed the first test, suddenly the possibility for self-preservation presents itself. She becomes shrewder at covering her tracks, better attuned to the slightest hint that will bring her house of cards tumbling down, more ruthless in dealing with the inheritance-greedy Thrombeys.

In many ways, it’s an inversion of the murder mystery trope where the killer is revealed to be the person who was initially written off as too slow, too clumsy, or too infirm to have actually committed the crime. But with Marta it was never an act; she stood to gain nothing from Harlan’s death, so Blanc’s initial interview seems almost a formality simply by dint of her being considered “part of the family” for her years of service. 

By having the viewers follow along from Marta’s perspective, even in believing that she is responsible for Harlan’s death, she becomes a strikingly sympathetic figure. Seemingly the worst possible thing has already happened, so her focus shifts to evading the consequences. After all, she doesn’t deserve to go to prison, to see her undocumented mother deported, and to lose her own future. Emotionally invested in Marta holding onto her life, we forgive her later actions, even when they involve shady blackmail meetings and lying to even the most sympathetic Thrombeys, the ones who had always claimed they would make sure she was taken care of.

But as the investigation becomes more complicated, including the aforementioned blackmail scheme and the medical examiner offices lit ablaze, Marta’s survival instinct comes into sharp focus. While none of these later twists are her doing, they could still brand her as guilty, if she is unable to remain one step ahead of whoever is sowing further chaos. In order to get away with the original crime, Marta must prove herself smarter than whoever is chasing her.

Marta does not hide behind lies—as she physically cannot—but as soon as her safety is threatened, she begins layering half-truths over herself as protection. Fascinatingly, this puts her in company with more traditional psychopathic killers who often charmingly lead their own stories, such as Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Though not a caretaker like Marta, Ripley nonetheless comes from his own humble means; odd jobs as a piano tuner or bathroom attendant bring him into the orbit of the rich and oblivious, allowing him to study and mimic the mannerisms bred into the upper class who do not even regard him as a person. This ability to read the room, combined with quick thinking, makes Ripley astute at picking up on strangers’ assumptions about where he comes from and who he counts as his friends—letting others draw their own conclusions and then reacting to whatever speculation has transformed into fact. 

In the original Patricia Highsmith story, which was adapted in 1999 into a Matt Damon movie, Tom’s first win is by pretending to be a college chum of Dickie Greenleaf, to the extent that Dickie’s father pays his way to fetch his errant son from an extended vacation in Italy. Once there, Tom plays Dickie and his fiancée Marge like the B-side of a record: If Tom knows the elder Greenleaf, then he must be from high society and therefore worth Dickie’s time. All it takes is a few convenient lunches and sailboat outings, and Tom has wormed his way into Dickie’s life, his sordid confidences, his intimate moments… almost too much.

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