Knives Out and the Villainy of Privilege

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In The Last Jedi, Johnson used Kylo Ren as a way to articulate the dangers of toxic masculinity. In Knives Out, he does something similar with that often terrifying combination of whiteness and wealth, using the various members of the Thrombey family to show just how ugly privilege can be. In both cases, Johnson refuses to give too much narrative space to his most problematic and powerful characters, avoiding the familiar trap of glorifying power–especially when it is being abused.

The Thrombey family is a particularly northeastern kind of privileged. While the film never explicitly states they are in Massachusetts (where the movie was filmed), the mentions of Boston and Smith College suggest it. Blanc, a white man from the indeterminate South, works as the perfect foil for the northern Thrombey family, who depicts the kind of white racism that exists in New England, where we too often believe ourselves to be past that institutional racism business–a denial that only serves to perpetuate structural inequalities. New England was on the right side of that Civil War. Never mind the fact that, in Boston, the median net worth for African American households (not including immigrants) is just $8, compared to white household’s $247,500.

That being said, Knives Out depicts that there is not just one flavor of racist, classist entitlement—though they certainly have things in common. The pro-Trump, inyour face racism practiced by Richard (Don Johnson) is certainly different from the millennial-tinged “white feminism” of Meg (Katherine Langford).  However, when push comes to shove, they turn out to not be that different in substantive action. When Meg’s college plans are threatened by the reading of Harlan’s will, she is as desperate to keep the fortune in the family as anyone, using her influence to encourage Marta to renounce the inheritance. And even with assurances that her college will be paid for, if not much else, she then outs Marta’s mother as undocumented to the rest of her family.

Previously, Meg had been the family member who elbowed a promise out of the family to “look after” Marta—who knows how that would have played out. But as the film does a good job of articulating, having someone bestow resources upon you at their discretion is not the same thing as having access to those resources yourself. It’s the difference between the family hiring lawyers to make sure Marta’s mother isn’t deported and Marta hiring a lawyer to do it herself. In the first scenario, Marta is beholden, in some way, to the Thrombeys. Therefore they have control over the situation and, to a certain extent, over Marta herself. In the second, they are stripped of that power.

This family feels entitled to everything they have earned, even though they haven’t earned it at all. Linda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) image is defined by her identity as a “self-made woman,” someone who earned everything she has by working hard and being good at what she does (real estate moguling)—not like her brother Walt (Michael Shannon), who only ever worked for her father’s already successful publishing house. Part way through the movie, however, we learn that Linda started her business with a million-dollar loan from her father—another direct reference to He Who Must Not Be Named.

Cleverly, the Thrombeys are antagonists without ever getting to revel in their own power, at least not properly. Knives Out refuses to do the cheap, easy thing of calling powerful people pathetic for the ways in which they abuse their power but also spending too much time depicting that abuse. To call someone sad for their abuse of power, but also to give them the power of the narrative (most especially when it is framed in aspirational ways) is a muddled message; we can’t really believe it. Because if these characters are so pathetic, then why are we paying so much glorious attention to them?

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