Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Knives Out. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is Knives Out about?
Knives Out is a modern murder mystery that ends up as a parable for the politics of the time relating to the United States and immigration. The Thrombeys are representative of left and right wing political views from white, established America. Johnson contrasts each political ideology only to reveal an ugly, shared root: control. When they have it, they’re superficially kind to the less fortunate. As soon as they feel their control threatened, the humanity goes out the window. Marta is the embodiment of a next generation that hasn’t been corrupted by inherited wealth and a sense of entitlement. Benoit Blanc serves as a tolerant, progressive, discerning spirit that sees people for who they are rather than what they are, and judges them accordingly. By assigning this view to the film’s heroic figure, Johnson makes a claim for a humanistic view of immigration in America.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Benoit Blanc – Daniel Craig
- Detective Lieutenant Elliot – LaKeith Stanfield
- Marta Cabrera (Harlan’s nurse) – Ana de Armas
- Harlan Thrombey – Christopher Plummer
- Linda Drysdale (Harlan’s daughter) – Jamie Lee Curtis
- Richard Drysdale (Linda’s husband) – Don Johnson
- Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Harlan’s grandson) – Chris Evans
- Walt Thrombey (Harlan’s son) – Michael Shannon
- Donna Thrombey (Walt’s wife) – Riki Lindhome
- Jacob Thrombey (Harlan’s grandson) – Jaeden Martell
- Joni Thrombey (Harlan’s daughter-in-law) – Toni Collette
- Meg Thrombey (Harlan’s granddaughter) – Katherine Langford
- Trooper Wagner – Noah Segan
- Fran (Harlan’s housekeeper) – Edi Patterson
- Alan Stevens – Frank Oz
- Written by – Rian Johnson
- Directed by – Rian Johnson
The ending of Knives Out explained
The ending of Knives Out begins following the revelation that Ransom was behind the events that led to Harlan Thombey’s death. The police had escorted the family outside. We see shots of Ransom taken from the house, past the family, to the car. The first shot is Ransom behind Walt. The next is him behind Joni, while Meg gets details from another officer. Then it’s Ransom’s father pleading to the police while Linda, Ransom’s mother, watches from a distance, unconcerned. Linda then uses a lighter to reveal a secret message from Harlan.
My heart. It’s time to cut the dead wood. He’s cheating on you. I have proof I know you don’t want to see. Untether yourself. It’s time. -Dad.
Linda then gives her husband a shocked look. And he seems to understand what it means. Blanc and Marta share a final moment. Marta tries to reckon with the responsibility of having Harlan’s resources. Does she help the Thrombeys or not? Blanc says he believes she’ll follow her heart. Before Ransom enters the police cruiser, Marta appears on the mansion’s balcony. They gaze at one another. The rest of the family turns to behold the house’s new owner. Linda blows out a breath of smoke. Marta sips from her mug. The mug reads, MY HOUSE MY RULES MY COFFEE!!
To appreciate the last shot of Marta on the balcony and the Thrombeys on the front yard of what had been their family home, you have to understand Knives Out is primarily political commentary about the state of America circa 2015-2019 in regards to immigration.
The Thrombeys represent a group of established, wealthy, White elites. Some are politically progressive. Others conservative. But they all, in their own way, keep up the appearances of trying to be good people. Especially when it comes to Marta. They all make a point of saying the family will take care of her in the aftermath of Harlan’s passing. Except when Harlan gives everything to Marta, the family reveals just how ugly they can be, All the progressivism? Gone. All that “you’re like family”? Over. It’s threats and vitriol and anger.
Harlan’s assets are essentially the benefits of America. The Thrombeys felt entitled to these benefits. The money, the land, the infrastructure that creates generational wealth. When the family finds out that Harlan had cut Ransom out of the will, prior to finding out about their own removal, they all agreed it was for the best. That Ransom was too dependent and needed this in order to grow up and become a better person. The irony being none of them realized they’re in need of the same medicine. In their own ways, they’re just as bad as Ransom.
Johnson calls out a segment of people who think they’re more deserving than others simply because of birthright. It almost seems like a direct response to the cry of “They’re taking our jobs.” Being born American does not make you more worthy than someone born in another country. The important thing is character. And of the relevant people Harlan could have left his resources to, he went with whom he judged as having the highest character.
You can view that showdown on the balcony as almost a tipping point between an old establishment and the next generation of the melting pot.
The moments leading up to the balcony scene simply reinforce the moral quality of the Thrombeys. Ransom’s being arrested for the murder of Harlan, yet people are too caught up in their own drama to notice. They don’t care about justice for Harlan. They only care about themselves.
The themes and meaning of Knives Out
Immigration in 21st century America
Knives Out is primarily a parable about 21st century America and the political tension around immigration. The Thrombeys transcend political alignment, as they’re made up of both left wing and right wing ideologies. So it’s not as simple as “The view of Democrats vs the view of the Republicans.” Rather, it’s about power dynamics.
The Thrombeys are rich White people who feel entitled based on the idea of inherited power. “This belonged to my ancestor, so it should belong to me. It’s as simple as that.” It echoes the phrase “They’re taking our jobs” that was such a galvanizing cry during the Trump era. An era that Knives Out is very much a byproduct of. Harlan’s writing his descendants out of the will is a declaration: who you are entitles you to nothing. It’s a matter of character. What you are. And the Thrombeys aren’t much. They take what they have for granted and are overly reliant on Harlan. While Marta is compassionate, dedicated, and skilled. It’s no wonder she ended up with “the house” and the Thombeys are out on the street.
Entitlement and growth through loss
When it first comes out that Harlan cut Ransom from the will, the rest of the Thrombey family says it’s for the best. Ransom’s own parents, Linda and Richard, even say that they think it’s what Ransom needs. That maybe he’ll finally grow up. The irony being that the rest of the Thrombeys are blind to the fact they’re as bad as Ransom. When they realize they’re all also out of the will, they don’t accept it as a lesson in tough love and a chance to grow up. They don’t think, “Maybe this is what’s best for me.” They rage and wail and flounder in narcissism.
Since Knives Out is a commentary on America circa 2016, specifically around the conversation of immigration, it only makes sense to apply the story of the Thrombeys to the US establishment most fearful of losing power to immigrants. Maybe those in power have become too comfortable with it. Their sense of entitlement has meant they take more than they contribute. Maybe a loss of status is exactly what they need in order to once again add value to society as a whole rather than simply benefitting from the work of others.
Why is the movie called Knives Out?
Knives Out is a cut down version of an old idiom. The phrase is usually about one group having their knives out for another group or individual. For example, “After Art Model moved the Browns to Baltimore and founded the Ravens football team, the city of Cleveland had its knives out for Model.” The origin probably has some reference to the assassination of Julius Caesar. In that infamous event, Caesar arrived for the usual leadership meeting at the Senate House of Pompey. During the discussion of one petition, a senator attempted to knife Caesar. The leader fought back, but other senators, also with knives, swarmed. They got Caesar to the ground and inflicted 23 wounds, and thus ended the Roman Republic. What came after the ascent of Marc Antony and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
So when the knives are out for someone, it tends to imply a souring that’s usually the beginning of the end of some relationship or loss of status or position. If a filmmaker goes over budget by $100 million, then the studio might have its knives out, meaning it’s only a matter of time before the filmmaker is let go from the project. Or you might say that, for decades, fiscally conservative politicians have had their knives out for Social Security.
In terms of Rian Johnson’s movie, the use of Knives Out has two primary applications. First, there’s the basic implication of violence. And the additional level of political intrigue for anyone who is aware of the Caesar reference.
The second is a bit deeper. The initial dynamic between the Thrombeys and Marta is that they see her as this sweet girl who doesn’t have much. They see themselves as her benevolent employers. Even after Harlan passes, multiple family members make sure to tell Marta they’ll take care of her, that they even view her as family. But after the will reading, when it’s revealed Harlan left everything to Marta, the family turns on her. All their care and humanity goes out the window. They’re angry. They’re mean. They’re manipulative, threatening, awful. In other words, the knives come out. Which begs the question of if they ever meant any of their previous, kind remarks.
There’s larger commentary here, as the Thrombeys represent a kind of established, wealthy White America, while Marta is from an immigrant family and embodies a new wave of the melting pot ideal that has been a huge US political topic in the first decades of the 20th century. Dialogue in the film even makes reference to some of the contentious immigration debates of the time.
Important motifs in Knives Out
The chair of knives
Situated in the sitting room of Harlan’s mansion is a throne-like chair crowned with an array of knives that all aim the tip of their blade at a center point just behind an occupier’s head. This creates the illusion of danger. The sense that the knives froze at the moment right before they could complete their plunge. It’s a maximalist take on the Sword of Damocles.
The Sword of Damocles is a parable about power. In the story, there’s a king named Dionysus. Damocles is one of the king’s subordinates. And one day, Damocles fawns over how lucky Dionysus is. “You’re the king! You’re the boss! How lucky you are! All this wealth. All this power. What a life!” Dionysus says, “You think it’s so great? How about we switch places for a day?” Of course, Damocles jumped at the opportunity, envisioning maidens feeding him grapes, sleeping in a great bed, and even going for a ride on the royal stallion through the king’s forest. That next day, Damocles walks into the throne room and Dionysus gestures to the throne. The King-For-A-Day happily takes his seat. Then he notices the odd vibe in the room. He catches the eyes of a servant who glances above Damocles. There, above Damocles, is a sword, hanging by a hair from the tail of the royal stallion. At any moment, the hair could break. The sword could fall. Damocles leaps from the throne. But Dionysus tsk-tsks. “Sit down. Be the king. Bask in how wonderful it is.”
When you have power, when you have wealth, it’s not all wonderful. There is fear. You become a target. We hear this all the time with athletes. As soon as they sign that first big contract, they become a target. Sometimes the intent is obvious and harmless. Like someone wanting to pitch you on their business idea. Sometimes it’s obvious and dangerous, like a robbery. Then the inverse can be true. The intent can be concealed and harmless. Like a friend who agrees with everything and laughs at everything just because they want to be taken care of more than they want to be real. Or the intent can be concealed and dangerous, like someone who says and does all the right things but is stealing or corrupting in a way that benefits them.
It’s the same for Harlan. His success has made him a target, even within his own family. For years, they were harmless yet forceful in the way they took advantage of him. But as soon as he cut Ransom out of the will, the knives came out. The intent turned dangerous. And when Harlan’s wealth transfers to Marta, we see the way each of the Thrombeys turn their metaphorical knife on the poor girl, wanting to take from her what they believe belongs to them.
So the chair of knives, which also seems to be a reference to the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, is a physical representation of this abstract, complex dynamic.
Questions & answers about Knives Out
Why did Ransom hire Blanc?
Blanc kind of explains it at the end. But two things happened here. First, Ransom’s plan didn’t go as he had imagined. By switching the labels on the vials of Harlan’s medication, he thought it would trigger a morphine overdose and there would be no one to blame but his nurse, Marta. When the cause wasn’t an OD but Harlan taking his own life via a throat slash, Ransom had to go to plan B. There was a recent profile about Benoit Blanc. Ransom must have been aware of this and decided to hire him Which was Ransom’s second problem: he was arrogant. He thought he was smart enough to manipulate the situation to his advantage. And it almost worked. The only thing Ransom didn’t account for was Blanc being as good as advertised. Ransom never considered that Blanc might be smarter than him. That even Marta might be smarter than him. If he had left it solely to local authorities, maybe he would have won the day.
So Harlan cut his own throat for no reason?
Yup. Harlan’s death was a true tragedy.
Why did Benoit Blanc keep playing the piano note?
Blanc is an entirely new character. Not an established name like Sherlock Holmes. So it makes sense to give him some sort of build. Johnson goes about this by gradually making Blanc’s presence known. First, we don’t see him at all. Then he’s present, but only in the background. The piano playing is a way of beginning to call attention and anticipation as to who this guy is. Why is he even there? You could do this merely through visual means, like cutting to Blanc at random points. Or through dialogue, by having characters ask about Blanc. But the piano playing adds a nice audio cue. Almost like the music from Jaws. The piano notes build until finally Blanc takes over the film.
Why was the knife Ransom uses fake?
The knife in question isn’t one Ransom brought from home and had on his person. When he decides to attack Marta, they’re standing right in front of Harlan’s theatrical throne with its halo of knives. Ransom pulls a knife from the throne then lunges at Marta and lands a blow with it. After a beat, everyone realizes it’s a toy, not an actual weapon.
The irony here is that you have to wonder how long Harlan had that chair and if everyone in the family just assumed the weapons were real? Has no one ever…you know…checked? Given how many kids were constantly running around, it makes sense why Harlan wouldn’t use real blades. It just feels like a bit of a joke at the expense of the Thrombeys. Like they’re the kind of people to spend years around this chair and just assume the knives were real and never check.
What did Harlan’s letter to Linda say?
Harlan and Linda would often pass hidden messages to each other, starting from when she was young. He wrote this note to tell her about her husband’s infidelity. The method adds a touch of nostalgia, compassion, and kindness to what is a difficult thing.
Specifically, the note says: My heart. It’s time to cut the dead wood. He’s cheating on you. I have proof I know you don’t want to see. Untether yourself. It’s time. -Dad.
Is there a sequel to Knives Out?
Yes, It’s called Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Knives Out? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!