A wealthy white man’s demise thrusts an upstanding Latina nurse into a spectacularly written crucible in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Though earnest in its full embrace of whodunit tropes and unabashed tonal excesses, the hilarious ensemble piece capitalizes on its many qualities that will garner mass appeal — among them an enviable cast — to take a decisive stance on the ongoing immigration debate in the United States.
Surrounded by a pack of entitled vultures, demure caregiver Marta Cabrera (Cuban-born actress Ana de Armas) quietly monitors the winding investigation deployed as consequence of mystery author Harlan Thrombey’s death (played by veteran thespian Christopher Plummer). Marta treasures her job and was endeared to her elderly employer, but must now tiptoe around with the knowledge she possesses. Since her body is physically incapable of deceit — she vomits whenever attempting to lie — silence is key.
Meanwhile, cartoonish detective Benoit Blanc (an against-type Daniel Craig) interrogates Harlan’s adult children and their spouses (including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette) inside an ornate home, trying to piece together a dubious version of the events. For every duplicitous revelation the airtight plot carves out, an even more jaw-dropping, yet plausible, turn comes to light. Johnson lines the crevices of his explosively engaging ride with relevant political commentary while still earning loud cackles from the audience.
“You with the help?” hears Marta upon arriving at the scene after not being invited to the funeral, an early indicator of how the elite rationalize her presence in such an opulent setting. The Thrombeys speak of Latin American countries as interchangeable, flaunting their disregard for Marta’s actual heritage. Over the course of the ordeal, white characters can’t agree on whether her family is from Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay or Brazil.
Whatever appreciation they claim to have for her at the onset is proven to be only skin-deep once their (unearned) financial stability is in jeopardy. Self-made successes in their own narcissistic minds, the Thrombeys quickly morph into bloodthirsty leeches threatening to disclose Marta’s mother immigration status to coerce her into submission. Bona fide black sheep Ransom, played by Chris Evans this time using his Adonis-like looks as a conduit for charming mischief, befriends Marta for personal gain, positioning himself as her sole ally.
Trump-related arguments about people entering the country “the right way,” children in cages, and the notion that no circumstances can justify being undocumented populate their racist worldview. Situations as such in Knives Out approximate what Miguel Arteta plunged into in Beatriz at Dinner.
As opposed to Salma Hayek’s outspoken character, Marta maintains her composure for her immediate family’s sake, but also unlike Beatriz, she elicits strength from her unsolicited quarrels with the rich heirs instead of letting dehumanizing insults like “anchor baby” crush her. Beatriz and Marta — both healers intuitively guided by compassion — infiltrate and challenge groups that patronize them, and in both cases they, at the very least, jolted their oppressors into seeing them for the first time as individuals who will not be degraded without a fight.
Testament to the movie’s precise production design, household objects and pivotal set fixtures all communicate with the intricately twisty puzzle of evidence in integral ways. Whether it’s a clever mug or an elaborate display of sharp daggers, the tangible clues are just as much building blocks for the truth as the rhythm and information concealing that the editor, Bob Ducsay, achieves with each sequence. Details separate the facts from the trickery after all.
Purposefully, Johnson wrote de Armas’ part as the most honest and least flamboyant member of his elegantly shot circus and in just a handful of moments showing Marta’s home life with her mother (Marlene Forte) and sister (Shyrley Rodriguez), he enlivens her experience beyond suffering. In a brief but attentive touch, he shows Angela Lansbury dubbed in Spanish in the classic series Murder, She Wrote on the family’s television. Murder mysteries, in fact, translate well into any language.
From the flames of greed, de Armas’ Marta emerges as a heroine for all immigrants and their children whose most inalienable superpower comes from empathy, civility, resilience and the utmost value for human life. Kindness is exalted, not denigrated.
A character like her, the daughter of an undocumented woman, in a movie that’ll open in every multiplex across the country over a holiday weekend is a figure of groundbreaking magnitude. Because of the times, one could dare say Marta Cabrera is the defining fictional woman of the year, and de Armas’ launchpad for even greater roles with similar substance.
Reveling in the universe’s validation — not for achieving a seemingly unattainable excellence but simply for doing what’s humane — Marta may get the joy of looking down at her bigoted and vitriolic adversaries from her high moral ground. Sip your coffee Marta.
Knives Out opens in theaters on November 27, 2019.