Rian Johnson, in his new murder mystery film Knives Out, constructs an allegory that reflects the current state of American society as it relates to our relationship with immigrants, inheritance, and family. Harlan Thrombey is an accomplished mystery author, who has used his massive wealth to support his big family. Caring for the old writer in his mansion is Marta Cabrera, a Latina nurse working to support her mother, who entered the country illegally. Marta acts as Harlan’s confidant–the person he opens up to about his family’s nastiness: his son-in-law’s cheating on his eldest daughter, his middle child’s mishandling of Harlan’s books’ publishing, and his daughter-in-law’s stealing. While his family is assembled to celebrate his 85th birthday, Harlan deals with each of them. The morning after his party, he is found dead. Not long after, the entire family hears from Harlan’s lawyer that he left his property and wealth to Marta. This is the point at which Rian Johnson begins to comment on entitlement and inheritance in America.
At the top of the hierarchy sits Harlan Thrombey, the patriarch of the family, representing America (the country), living in his mansion, America (the place). Below him are his descendants, presumptive heirs to his wealth and assets. Further below them is Marta, the Latina worker, whose family is from neither the Thrombey family or America. Despite some of Harlan’s family choosing not to spend time with him or blatantly betraying him, they all feel entitled to his wealth and assets simply because they are related. Conversely, Marta spends much of her time at his mansion, caring for his health, lending her ear when he has issues, and having fun by playing Go with him day after day. Though she may not be related by blood to him, she put in the work to care for and get to know Harlan, which is far more than his blood relatives cared to do. Johnson uses this to illustrate the entitlement in the U.S. that some Americans may feel when immigrants come in to the country to “steal” jobs or welfare benefits, implying they don’t work hard enough for or pay the taxes to deserve these things.
This is expanded upon further when a debate opens between two members of the Thrombey family about whether or not immigrants should be allowed to come into the country. Harlan’s son-in-law asserts that absolutely no immigrants may come into the country illegally, even if they aren’t bad people or escaping poverty or crime, whereas Harlan’s daughter-in-law disagrees. The son-in-law calls in Marta to use her as an example, which comes ironically, since her mother entered the country illegally. He seems to have no problem with Marta or her family, likely because he has gotten to know her, so would he send Marta’s mother out of the country if he found out she was in the U.S. illegally? Johnson sets up this situation to pose this very question to the audience. People who share this character’s view on immigration are now put into this awkward and contradictory position where they must choose between a family friend or their strict ideals–their adherence to immigration law.
At the end of the movie, Marta is cleared of suspicion on Harlan’s death, thus making her a valid heir to his wealth. She stands on the balcony of the mansion, holding Harlan’s mug that says “My House, My Rules, My Coffee”, looking over the Thrombey family. A shot from below shows the family looking up at her, wearing a blanket over her shoulders like a cape, almost like royalty. The film cuts to a close up of her drinking the coffee and ends. Marta is left in a position where she can show mercy for the Thrombey family. Johnson does this role reversal to have the members of the audience who sympathize more with the family consider how immigrants and their children must feel when they are at the mercy of someone else who has no reason to be compassionate. Johnson, however, is not suggesting that people must treat others well merely for the purpose of reciprocation; he asserts that, like Marta got to know Harlan and his ideals, natural born Americans and immigrant Americans must get to know each other. Regardless of your country of origin, both groups live in America and are American, but, most importantly, are both human. Therefore, it is the naturally ordained course of action to socialize, get along with, and grow with other humans. This and his condemnation of American entitlement are Rian Johnson’s message to a country that has groups of people that believe other groups of people are less deserving or worthy of pursuing the American Dream and inheriting what the country has to offer.