While viewers hopefully can’t identify with plotting to murder their family’s patriarch, Knives Out is full of plenty of dysfunctional family dynamics that most can, regrettably, relate to. Whether it’s overtly clashing personality types or subtle passive-aggressive digs, the Thrombeys are a reminder of why many dread family gatherings, which makes the whodunit the perfect film to watch before embarking on the most uncomfortable dinner of the year— although, even Detective Blanc’s interrogation tactics likely aren’t enough to prepare for invasive questions about marriage and promotions.
The film sets the autumnal mood by opening with a shot of the Thrombey mansion surrounded by fallen leaves. Within minutes, viewers get a look into each member of the family’s characters as they’re questioned by two police offers who suspect Harlan Thrombey (Christoper Plummer) was the victim of foul play. The officers’ line of questioning allows viewers to see the Thrombeys as they present themselves on the surface.
Knives Out checks all the boxes of a stereotypical family tree. There’s Joni (Toni Collette) the hippie aunt, Walt (Michael Shannon) the conservative uncle, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), the eldest daughter and grandpa’s clear favorite, and feuding cousins Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and Meg (Katherine Langford).
At first glance, they all appear to be fairly straightforward and predictable characters. The wide array of personality types allows viewers to identify with at least one of them and see similarities between their own family members. What makes them feel even more like a family is that deep down, they have a shared value. In the case of the Thrombeys, it’s a hidden hunger for money that will cause them to betray their more individualistic outlooks.
The Family Drama
Their feigned politeness and rose-colored retellings of events are a familiar scene to those whose relatives have underlying tension. By willfully ignoring the reality of their relationships, the Thrombeys are able to remain pleasant— or at least civil— about the situation. However, despite their guarded personas, they can’t help but allow glimmers of their true thoughts and feelings to shine through when Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) initiates everyone’s Thanksgiving nightmare by baiting the family into speaking their minds more openly.
Detective Blanc knows the right buttons to push to use their personalities against them. For the smarter members of the family, he uses their egos against them by making a comment he knows they can’t resist challenging. For the more easily manipulated, he simply sets the trap by asking a seemingly innocent question. In the real world, the instigators in the family may do this to bring up politics, judgments about other family members, or even a sports rivalry that gets taken far too seriously.
Later in the film, it’s revealed that Blanc isn’t the only one who can expertly target the family’s weak points. Ransom (Chris Evans) is easily able to get under his family’s skin by refusing to behave how they would like him to. With a well-timed sarcastic comment or an over-the-top eye roll, Ransom can cause arguments without much effort, proving that nobody knows how to frustrate each other quite like family— especially during the time of year when days and tempers are shorter.
Although Ransom is an undeniably awful person, he’s also one of the funniest parts of the film. The Thrombeys showcase how comedic family drama can be when viewed from a distance. While everyone’s differences can feel deeply important in the moment, after the extended family leaves with their Tupperware full of leftovers that will inevitably be tossed out after two days, it becomes easier to recognize that their opinions don’t hold any more inherent value than anyone else’s. Ransom, for all his faults, recognizes that.
This is exemplified when the Thrombeys have a debate about immigration. They act as if they’re experts on the topic, then reveal that none of them know which country Marta’s (Ana de Armas) mother immigrated from while trying to use her life experience to validate their uninformed viewpoints. Instead of desperately trying to avoid drama or getting upset when it arises this holiday season, let the Thrombeys serve as a reminder that sometimes it truly isn’t worth taking seriously, no matter how annoying it may be.
That being said, while it’s easy to dismiss their comments for being laughably out of touch, it does highlight how Marta is ultimately an outsider despite some Thrombeys telling her she’s part of the family. Marta wasn’t invited to Harlan’s funeral despite spending every day with him and clearly being his closest friend. Some Thrombeys claim they wanted her there and were outvoted, but it’s almost certain that at least one is lying based on how many people would receive a vote and how many claim they truly do consider her family.
Similarly, although Joni married into the family, it’s clear that she isn’t on the same level as those who are Thrombeys by blood and those with living spouses. During her questioning with the police, she says that she feels supported and freed by the family, but this dialogue is cut with shots of the others clearly being annoyed by her. Before the will reading, Joni’s comments are dismissed and ignored more than anyone else’s.
This can be a relatable experience for people who aren’t blood-related or married to someone at Thanksgiving. Those who are on the fringes of the group can be heavily scrutinized or treated dismissively. This can sometimes even be the case with a married partner who their in-laws don’t approve of. Although the Thrombeys aren’t the main characters, the screen time they do have paints a realistic picture of common family dynamics that likely hit a little too close to home for some viewers.
Ultimately, the technicality of how people are involved in a family unit shouldn’t matter. The bonds built through their character should be what counts. Yet, when it’s revealed that Marta will be the one to inherit Harlan’s assets the Thrombeys are shocked and furious, causing their facades to drop entirely. Joni, who is an outsider in her own right, even states that Harlan must’ve confused Marta as part of their family because she’s around their house often— the house that now belongs to Marta.
While it’s unlikely that family drama that intense will arise, Knives Out portrays all the complicated and comical aspects of navigating relatives to their fullest extent. Despite it all, there’s also love clearly present in this difficult time in the Thrombeys’ lives, which means there’s hope for Thanksgiving yet, as long as we only take the knives out to carve the turkey.