Welcome to Cinemixology, a loosely defined series exploring cocktails and pop culture.
Today we’re exploring the delightful hit murder mystery film, 2019’s Knives Out and find out what mysteries we can uncover by examining the characters’ drinks.
I also made a video version if that’s more your style: https://youtu.be/IJM-mQDtZV0
First, I’ll be doing a fairly straightforward analysis, as the filmmakers want me to. But then,
Oh but then,
I’m blowing this whole thing wide open as I explain how an alcoholic beverage shows how we’ve all been wrong about who’s really responsible for the death of Harlan Thrombey.
We’ve all been wrong about who’s really responsible for the death of Harlan Thrombey.
(All the spoilers obviously)
Knives Out follows a twisted scheme of murder and greed that keeps you both guessing and entertained. The central plot unravels the schemes of Ransom (Chris Evans), who attempts to frame caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas) for the death of his wealthy grandfather Harlan (Christopher Plummer) in an attempt to retain his vast inheritance.
Or at least that’s what we’re lead to believe.
The Drinks of Knives Out
All the drinking in this film takes place during 2 major events:
-A party the night Harlan died and
-A diner scene with Ransom and Marta.
Both are symbolic of the Thrombey family’s relationship with Marta.
The first impression we are given of the party is the mess that was left behind. Gilded champagne flutes and fine plates are strewn about like an especially delicate frat party. The dishes are left lying wherever the Thrombeys had finished using them.
Champagne is always movie-shorthand for wealth, and the careless mess left in their own home lets us know they are also entitled and lazy.
We then see the night of the party from the perspectives of various Thrombeys as they give their side of the story to Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
There is one thing every story has in common: The family got shit-housed that night. No matter who is telling the story or seemingly what time of the evening we are shown, everyone constantly has a drink in their hands.
Whether it be by martini, champagne, or whiskey this classy family wallowed in drunken luxury.
The family got shit-housed
Marta, very conspicuously, is not drinking during the party except for briefly in what appears to be a glass of water, and even turns down a glass of champagne because she’s working. This further underlines the deep separations between the Thrombeys and Marta. Even though she was invited to a birthday party by the birthday boy, she is still a servant while the Thrombeys are the true guests of the party.
They are vice-riddled weirdos, she’s a sober saint.
Ransom’s scene in the diner goes a step further and has him building a literal wall between him and Marta with his beer bottles.
Ransom’s beer drinking is interesting to note because we know from this scene that he likes to think of himself as “special”. He separates himself from his family by drinking something traditionally considered lower class.
Of course, we know he drinks beer in the most snobbish way possible as evidenced by all the growlers seen in his home.
He later uses a growler when he torches the lab. I’m not sure if arson and evidence destruction is a beer snob thing or not, but for Ransom it is.
The drinks of the movie seem to line up neatly with how the plot wraps up. The Thrombeys are entitled drunken snobs that barely consider the saintly sober Marta a person.
I have a couple of problems with that.
I have … problems
The Problem With Marta
So the overall theme is that the rich white people are freeloaders on their own system of a sort of private welfare and Harlon giving the wealth to an honest immigrant who worked hard is karmic justice and possibly a metaphor redistributing the wealth to the workers.
This is still problematic however, because it’s still very much a white man’s tale and the message gets a bit muddled, despite what I’m sure were the best intentions.
The film treats Marta in a similar way that the Thrombeys do. Sure, part of that is intentional. Like running gags where the Thrombeys all say she’s from different South American countries (despite evidence suggesting her family is from Cuba) or that they all claim they wanted to invite her to the funeral but were “outvoted.”
It starts to get murky with other details like the fact that Marta’s mother is never given a name and is only used as a plot device to create tension for Marta. Is the film trying to make the point that personhood is often removed from immigrants and thought of as props and blackmail material? Or did they just not bother to flesh out that character?
Then there’s Marta herself.
While I do find it kinda refreshing that there weren’t any romantic subplots in the film (I’m sure there’s plenty of Marta/Det. Blanc shippers, but the movie doesn’t go there), they overcorrect in the other direction and remove any sexuality from Marta at all. She wears very drapey clothes, has a plain style of make-up and hairdo, and generally holds herself in a defensive/closed in position. Add in that she literally, physically cannot tell a lie and she’s a paradigm of virtue.
And honestly, that’s boring in a character.
She’s a paradigm of virtue…and that’s boring
By completely removing any sort of vice, Marta is not a real person so much as the ideal saint version of a person. Ana De Armas exudes so much charisma that she gives life to the character and makes Marta compelling, but on page she’s just a boring goody-two-shoes.
This just isn’t humanizing Marta in a realistic way.
And talk about white people’s fears of immigrants, from a certain point of view, Marta is the daughter of an illegal immigrant that destroyed a white family and stole their house. Sure, we the audience know this is a good thing because Marta is so good. But at the end of the day, a young woman being left a vast sum of money by a rich old guy is not generally considered a “good look.” Anna Nicole Smith famously never ended up getting any money.
During the night of the party, the insufferable family beckons Marta into their conversation. They then use her as a prop in their debate without acknowledging her experiences as a real human. The audience and the film both know this is wrong. We’re supposed to laugh at them because we know better.
But by removing Marta of all vice and only giving her virtue, the film is, in a sense, doing the same thing.
She’s being used as a prop to make us feel good about ourselves for recognizing her as a human person, even though she’s literaly the goodliest human person ever born. Adhering to some puritanical version of morality shouldn’t be required for a person of lower financial status to be considered “worthy” of success, nor is it really possible for the vast, vast majority of humanity.
I mean, have you met people?
And again, this isn’t to bash the film. It was still extremely well done, the cast is firing on all cylinders, and it’s one of the most enjoyable films to watch. But, you know, there’s always room for improvement. It’s these reasons that having diversity behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera is so important.
You don’t want to overcorrect into fetishizing Latin Americans.
However, this analysis is 100% sound only if you take the movie at face value, which the movie itself tells you: don’t take things at face value. Because there’s a major problem, and it becomes involves a drink I haven’t fully dealt with yet. A drink never seen on screen.
Marta and The Case Of The Champagne Sham
Earlier I said Marta is so free of vice that not only is she never shown having a drink, but explicitly refuses a glass of champagne.
However, you will notice that on the night of the “murder”, Marta says several times “I had a glass of champagne” as an excuse to leave.
Sure, it could have easily happened off-camera, and I originally wrote it off that way. But then why show the audience her explicitly turning down a glass of champagne later? Now again, maybe Marta refused that glass and had one later, but it seems like such an odd thing to include.
Which can only mean one thing as far as I’m concerned: Marta lied! Marta lied about having the champagne, and she doesn’t throw up after shouting it twice.
Seeing as her whole thing is not being able to lie, this throws her entire character into question, and that brings us to:
The REAL(?) Problem With Marta.
Marta is the mastermind behind everything.
Harlan asks her about her strategy that allows her to be the only one to be able to beat him at his favorite game. Marta replies, “I’m not trying to win, I’m trying to create a pretty pattern.”
All she needs to do is act like all innocent and keep making the pattern pretty as possible and let her opponents defeat themselves by trying to outplay her.
Once you realize her game, there’s so much evidence she’s behind everything.
Warning, I may have gone overboard in this section, if you don’t need convincing feel free to click here to skip down
-A theme of foresight runs throughout the film. Harlan is made out as a sort of savant for how things will play out. His writing method is described as “the plots come fully formed in his mind” and he keeps a crystal ball on his desk. Yet Marta beats him at his favorite game of strategy, hinting she could foresee how the family would act better than anyone.
-Everyone just takes Marta’s word that she always throws up when she lies. Literally no one ever asks her family or does any investigation to see if it’s true. The detectives assume it’s a real thing because Blanc thinks he tricked Marta into lying about an affair and is overly confident in his own abilities. She could have seen that trap coming from a mile away and faked it. Plus, for the rest of the film she always vomits exactly as conspicuously as needed to seem like she’s trying to hide it while still being visible.
-We see Harlan confiding in Marta about telling his children they’re being cut off. We know from what Marta says, however, that she has known about the plan for some time. The film makes Harlan’s reasons why for cutting off his children very clear, but doesn’t show how he came to that decision.
-He’s seemingly had little problem with his family situation before Marta started working for him, and then suddenly he decides he’s raised his family wrong for the past 50 years, decides to leave his vast fortune and property to his nurse, and then dies in a decidedly bizarre manner.
-Marta seems to only ever be reacting in a way that seems overwhelmingly and preposterously honest and kind-hearted. This is clearly part of her “pretty picture” strategy that masks her overarching plot.
-Her name “Marta Cabrera” means Mistress/Master Goatherd. She herded those white people good.
-At the end of the film, after a climactic murder attempt, Marta falls into a pose on the ground clutching the knife. The pose and knife closely mimic a portrait of Harlan that Marta gives knowing looks to throughout the film. As this happens right after Ransom is foiled and she has won the game, it hints that her plot to replace Harlan has succeeded.
Marta The Mastermind
Anyway, to say the least, I’m convinced the major unresolved twist in the story is that Marta masterminded the whole thing.
Too often these kinds of major twists rely on the mastermind basically having mind-reading powers and the ability to see the future. Here though, it’s all too plausible. All Marta had to do was bank on the fact that the Thrombeys would act like a bunch of overdramatic weirdos whose lives revolve around convoluted murder plots. It wouldn’t take a supernatural gift of foresight to know that cutting this greedy family off from Harlan’s money would create enough of a motive for one of them to kill him.
Then she just had to make sure Blanc got the right clues at the right time and keep up her act of pure innocent virtue.
She was playing her game of “beautiful patterns” and in doing so gave the detectives “the who, the what, and where” and a set of clues to lead them there. When they “solve” the mystery and arrest Ransom, they can congratulate themselves on a game well played without realizing that Marta had designed the entire board.
All she has to do is maintain her pattern of perfect innocence.
The detectives played the game without realizing Marta had designed the board.
So what does that mean for my earlier analysis? Well, it’s better in some ways. It is intriguing that Marta could use her “invisible” status as a poor minority to outplay the wealthy old white family. It gives Marta more agency and makes her a far more interesting character than the one we’re lead to believe is the “true” Marta.
It’s less good in that it does seem to affirm that sneaky minorities will come in and trick your dad into giving away his house and fortune. But we can give them the benefit of the doubt and say, given the fact that Knives Out exists in a universe where murder mystery tropes and shocking twists rule the day, she’s simply beating them at their own game.
I guess it’s also possible that she’s a good person and saw how rotten the Thrombey’s were and hatched her plan to punish them. Like some sort of self-serving Robin Hood.
That’s, empowering. I suppose.
So in conclusion, the film as it stands and how most people interpret it, doesn’t deal with Marta in a totally awesome way. In the way I’ve interpreted the film, it’s still not 100% great as an allegory, but it is better for Marta the character.
Looking at the cast list for Knives Out 2, it looks like we’re done with Marta and the Thrombeys, at least for now, so we may never know the full extent of Marta’s character. I know what I’ll be looking out for in the sequel though, because I think it would hilarious if it turns out the point of the whole series is that Benoit is truly a terrible detective despite a moderate level of cunning, and while he seems to solve the mystery each time, he never actually catches the Mastermind.
Or maybe Marta will come back and do a full heel turn and go from Blanc’s Watson to his Moriarty. We’ll have to wait until at least Knives Out 3 (already bought by Netflix).