Best judge of character is a dog, as the detective reminds himself, and the heroine, in Knives Out. ‘I’ve found that to be true,’ he muses, in his lyrical southern accent – an accent which, together with his gentlemanly demeanor, prompts another character to describe him as CSI: KFC. He says it as they stand outside the home of a man who (spoilers ahead), had he not met his demise before the film’s opening, would have been the type to remember the most famous aphorism of the first historian: Character is destiny.
The man may be dead as the film opens, but the dogs are alive with interest. The first thing we see is them rushing towards the camera in slow motion, as the home sits behind them. Once they disappear past us, the game will be afoot. So, like the detective, we must remember that dogs – especially those charged with guarding a home – in fact ask two questions as one: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Are you welcome here?’
In short order, we will learn that the rich white man of the house has died violently, and then we will find his nurse, a young woman from an immigrant family, at home with her mother and sister. When we first see them, they’re positioned in the frame like a triangle – an image of shelter. In their brief conversation – they will have just one more scene together – the theme is protection. They look out for each other.
This is decidedly not so of the dead man’s family, who sit for interviews with the police in front of a window so encircled with knives only a small window of clean light comes through at the center. They don’t sit at the center.
Still, it has the air of a throne – a reversal of the iron one from the Game show, which is made of blades beneath a clear space. This is a home of power, a home that has made its fortune through violence. That that violence was fictional – that all this is a story – will not stop violence from being done.
He was the only creator among them, and he is now gone. Yet his children, and his children’s children, make much of what they make. ‘Self-made’ comes up frequently, with irony and without. The detective – familiar to them as white, unfamiliar to them as Southern – tries to endear himself by describing himself that way. Whatever the stark truth of it, they struggle against their destiny, which is to be empty of character.
In due course, as desperation lands and the knives come out, all of them will fail to show that this is their home – because they don’t know what home is. The house, of course, is America. The mystery is who this land was made for.
Sitting in the center of it is a baseball, which the old man handles in one of his first scenes, shown in flashback, as he begins the process of trying to make them remember. ‘I’m sane for the first time in my life,’ he tells his grandson, who will be disinherited, along with the rest of the family. ‘You’re just throwing your fortune away?’ the grandson – played, needless to say, by Captain America – rages at him. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I’m giving it to Marta.’
Marta. Marta, the nurse. Marta who works, who takes care of people, who builds the life we all have here. Marta, whose nation of origin is never revealed, because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to the family members, who attribute her nationality to Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil in turn, with the kind of absent-minded cruelty that shows the family in a sharply hilarious light.
The funniest instance of this comes in a heated conversation about immigration – ranging the gamut from milquetoast liberalism to nativism – in which the adulterous son-in-law ushers Marta over to offer her up as cover for his law-and-order nonsense, being that she is so plainly beyond reproach. He almost fills the shot – almost – as he absently hands off his half-finished plate of cake to Marta, whose hand alone is at a distant eleven-o’clock in the frame.
Food, cleaning, medicine, care: the arteries of our lives we don’t think about because a life force is making sure we don’t need to. The immigrants Marta represents work the amber waves of grain for our bread and cross the purple mountains to bring them to us. They staff the slaughterhouses for our meat, clean the toilets of our office buildings, wash floors, wash dishes, care for us when we’re sick, give us our medicine, rehabilitate us, hold our hands when we die. It doesn’t matter where Marta comes from, not even to the audience, because we know she’s home.
The old man holds the baseball: America at its truest, at its kindest, at its best. Then he places it back where it belongs, in the hands of the angels – the statue on his desk. After he dies, the son-in-law picks it up and throws it out the window.
The game is afoot by then, as the detective says with relish. In fact, it’s a literal foot, given away to the detective in the same moment it’s given away to us – from the very beginning. He sees the spot of blood on Marta’s shoe. In a flashback hinged on a coin toss – fate in the air and falling – we learn that, just as the diligent beat cops had surmised, the old man’s death was a suicide. He killed himself to save Marta. It was to protect her, to protect her family – her mother is undocumented – but it was also to protect her home. Because from the moment he died, it would be hers.
Captain America doesn’t like this one bit, and in the twists and turns that are the hallmark of the mystery genre, we go on a ride to find out where it all goes from there. The film is a spotless genre film in a tellingly antiquated genre. It delivers real surprises, genuine malice, intricate truth-finding, and a whizz-bang finale. But it also has the detective picking up the baseball.
He finds it outside the house, and puts it in his pocket. His name is Blanc, which means white. He is very, deliberately, iconically Southern. He is also a liberal.
Southern liberalism may be sneered away, but only by those who don’t know what liberalism is, or what it’s been. The South has a long tradition of staunch liberalism, though to all appearances it would seem to be at present frozen in amber. The broad difference between southern liberalism and the northern variety is that Southerners actually have to give something up. They have to change their story.
Thomas Jefferson was almost a liberal. Historically, he has been much admired by most strands of American liberalism, excepting the odd Hamiltonian moment we inhabit. But Thomas Jefferson never gave up his slaves. He felt bad about it; he still owned slaves until the day he died.
The South and the North are cleaved by the monumental moral crisis of slavery. Whatever else has existed in its presence flows back to it. There are great, Stonehenge-sized exceptions to this, not the least of which being that slavery existed in the North. But the essential fact of that division, the spiritual Mason-Dixon, cuts through the American soul.
I’m Canadian. I’ve lived in America all my adult life, but I grew up a perplexed, distant liberal – a kind of super-example of so-called coastal elites. Why was the American South the way it was? How could such a sickening legacy of racism have existed, and how can it possibly endure the way it does? The answer was that I had never had to give anything up.
The white South's power – its barbaric, illegitimate power – was taken away. It was taken away in a bloody war that saw no battles in the North. Its greatest city was burned down. Its economy was reordered. And more important than all else, its story was retold.
That this was all morally legitimate is beyond question. The white South had no right to its slaves; no right to its riches; no right to its nostalgia; no right to its self-serving anti-narrative of the lost cause. Quite the opposite; it had the wrong of all those things. Yet it had them, as Jefferson had slaves.
A stodgy old saying goes that a liberal is someone whose interests aren’t at stake for the moment. I believe that this is precisely untrue, which is why I suspect that much of our salvation may lie with southern liberalism. You can only be a liberal if you risk something you have - if you can see the light, and tell a different story. Otherwise, you’re just looking through the window.
In Knives Out, the story is all over the window. There’s only one small circle where the knives don’t reach, and the light gets through. It’s where we see the face of the southern detective when he finally finds the truth. As it turns out, character really is destiny.
Just before this the game had been lost, and Marta was to find that this wasn’t her home. The family faced her, surrounded her, having let her down in every possible way. Even the so-called liberals of the piece – the painfully sincere undergraduate, the dutiful would-be new patriarch, both of whom insisted at the outset that they would take care of her – well, her offer to take care of them was too much for them to handle. They didn’t want care. They wanted power. In the end, they wanted the home to be theirs. The baseball was in the dog’s jaws.
But then it’s plucked out, and the truth is revealed. Marta had won the game, not only because she had earned it, but because she deserved it. A country song is played, and the baseball goes back to the hands of the angels.
A fantasy perhaps; a story certainly. Another story. Kindness, care, work, home: they are all things that can be abused almost endlessly. The immigrants of America are under assault at this moment by all manner of Captain Americas, who brandish words and weapons – who tell the same wrong story about who they are and who this land is made for.
Not long before he dies – as an out-of-focus, fore-grounded knife follows the line of his throat at the rear of the image – the old man says that his grandson made so many of the same mistakes he did: playing life as though it were a game, not knowing a real knife from a stage knife. The tragedy – and the black comedy at its heart – is that the grandson doesn’t know the story he’s telling isn’t true. And that’s what saves his would-be victim, Marta, who stands tall on the house’s balcony in the last shot, holding the old man’s coffee cup – the one that says ‘my home, my rules, my coffee’.
The old man, the only one of his family who ever really made anything – the one who still held on to the baseball – knew the real story about this house, America. If you work here, if you care for your family here, if you build the life we all have here, you are home. And yes, your strength wins the day. Your kindness wins the day. You, and your home, win the day. And in the end, America will be waiting for you, because she's never been gone. She remains, the way you built her, capacious, heart-swollen, strong. Whatever you endure, whatever you sacrifice, whatever losses you suffer, this land is your land.