Growing up, I was always comforted by the idea that my conservative family members weren’t that bad. Yes, they’d always voted Republican, but they were reasonable Republicans, the type that simply had a different way of understanding the world. They liked the idea of universal health care, but they didn’t trust the government’s ability to effectively carry the policy out. They didn’t like the idea of poverty, but they figured raising the minimum wage too much would cause inflation and higher unemployment rates, and would end up harming the poor more than it helped.
These were all valid concerns, ones I assumed were the foundations behind my family members’ conservative understanding of the world. It was shortly after watching Knives Out that I realized I’d been giving them way too much credit.
Knives Out is a 2019 film about a caretaker named Marta who finds herself at the center of a murder conspiracy surrounding the death of Harlan Thrombey, an old billionaire whose offspring can’t wait to inherit his fortune. The movie is, at its core, a movie about class. The Thrombey family may constantly insult and scheme against each other, but the moment their wealth is threatened, all those differences seem to melt away.
The message of the movie is pretty clear: These characters have all been born into a life of wealth and privilege, and all that matters is keeping their place at the top of society.
For instance, some of the family members are liberal and some of them are full-on Donald Trump supporters. In the first half, the movie tricks its audience into thinking the liberal members of the family might be genuinely nice people. The character of Meg Thrombey (played by Katherine Langford) seems like a cool person who actually cares about Marta. They hang out, they smoke pot together, and Meg certainly seems to be more grounded and compassionate than the other members of her family.
Once it’s announced that all of Harlan’s fortune will go to Marta, however, Meg ends up being the one to let the other family members know about Marta’s mother’s undocumented status, knowingly giving them a weapon with which to intimidate Marta into giving back their money. Meg apologizes for this in the end, but it’s a hollow apology, one where she completely fails to take responsibility for the sheer knowing cruelty of what she’s done. The message of the movie is pretty clear: These characters have all been born into a life of wealth and privilege, and all that matters is keeping their place at the top of society.
My extended family is not as well off as the Thrombeys, although we are pretty well off. We have no mansions, but everyone’s got a nice house and every kid knows they’ll be going to college.
The fact we’re a bunch of well-off white people often makes political conversations feel somewhat pointless because the real-world stakes for my family were so much lower. I would argue a liberal point of view, they’d argue a conservative point of view, and regardless of how it went, we could always hit that off switch and talk about something else.
Politics is, for the most part, just a thought exercise in my family. We argue about Black Lives Matter with the implicit knowledge that none of us will probably ever be harmed by the police. We talk about poverty with the knowledge that none of us are likely to ever be living on the streets. There’s a certain detachment in the way we discuss the issues, and I’d often imagine someone like Marta listening in on these conversations and wonder if she’d find it all as hollow as I do.
As Knives Out shows, class and the privilege that comes with it is probably the single biggest influence on the way you see the world or the type of person you end up being. Out of all the political subtext in the movie, however, the class commentary was not the aspect that impressed me the most. The storyline that really rang true to me was the characterization of Jacob Thrombey.
Even the openly conservative members of the family think young Jacob Thrombey is a Nazi. The characters speculate he’s been “radicalized by 4chan” and treat him as the black sheep of the family. He’s an anomaly, they say. The family may have its problems, but even they don’t know how this kid ended up spending his free time as an alt-right #MAGA troll.
At least, that’s the impression the audience gets in the first half of the film before the characters realize they’re about to be cut off from their wealth. Jacob’s still a racist troll, but he’s not the one leading the campaign to sabotage Marta’s life. He’s complicit in it, sure, but he’s still in the background. It’s the other family members — the liberals, conservatives, the apparently apolitical — that aren’t hesitating to destroy this immigrant woman’s life, even after she’s made it clear that she’s perfectly willing to send them money whenever they need it. It’s not that they need the money to pay their bills; it’s more that they want the power the money provides. The idea of having to ask Marta for money is insulting to them. It’s supposed to be the other way around.
Once their wealth is threatened, it quickly becomes clear that Jacob’s extremism is not a rare trait in their family. His racism, his contempt for the poor, for immigrants — once the polite veneer shatters, everyone else in the family is revealed to share the same traits. He wasn’t radicalized by 4chan; he was simply internalizing the ideas his family already believed. Unlike him, however, his family understood that these ideas weren’t polite. They were smart enough to keep their true opinions hidden.
The way Jacob’s spoken of throughout the movie reminds me of someone in my own family, who my cousins and I would often refer to as our Crazy Racist Aunt.