By Rana Homayouni
This paper seeks to analyze the film ‘Knives Out’ from a psychoanalytic perspective, using Freudian and Kleinian theoretical standpoints. Klein’s thoughts on ‘projective identification’ is heavily utilized in the writing of this paper, as well as my attempts to analyze the characters’ unconscious wishes and motives throughout the film. In doing so, I am aware that like any work of fiction, characters do not possess an unconscious mind and therefore any attempt at analysis is a step in revealing my own unconscious thoughts and fantasies.
‘Knives out’ is a murder mystery set in a large rambling house, surrounded by trees as far as the eye can see and brimming with white-collar opulence. It begins by startling the viewer through introducing a death, an apparent suicide of the patriarch of the household, lying with his throat slit open. What ensues is an interrogation of his various family members by Detective Benoit Blanc, who forges ahead in his questioning with equal amounts of suspicion and restraint. The family members are shown to possess various kinds of unappealing traits: lying, infidelity, stealing, incompetency and the list goes on. The camera takes us back to the previous evening at intervals, in which a party was thrown in honor of Harlan Thromby, our deceased master of the house. These flashbacks showcase the family member’s relationship with Harlan and each other, but more importantly, introduce a central figure to the film; the character of Marta. Marta is presented as a ‘kind hearted’ and attentive nurse who not only manages her professional duties but is a true friend to Harlan. To other family
members her identity is confused, she is considered to be Uruguayan, Ecuadorian or Brazilian. In one particular scene during the party, Marta is called in to give her thoughts on illegals, resulting in an uncomfortable debate between the family members and showcasing the air du temps that we are experiencing as a society. We later understand that Marta’s own mother entered the country illegally.
With Harlan dead, it is quickly revealed who the real killer is. Marta, in an apparent act of negligence, injects Harlan with morphine instead of his regular medication. Knowing her precarious status as an immigrant and being fond of Marta, Harlan devises a plan to let Marta off the hook. The plan appears successful, until it is revealed that Harlan has left his entire will to Marta. The remaining family members turn on Marta, bribing and coercing. Here, it is noteworthy to mention one of the underlying themes of ‘Knives out’, which is the anxiety and fear of the immigrant. This immigrant, whose identity is not known, steals all the riches and kills the natives. We may think of Marta as viewed to encompass all that is wished to be expelled by the family members: greed, thievery, inappropriate sexual behaviour, etc. She is the Other who we have sought to distance ourselves from, she is the outwardly symptomatic black sheep of the family. We may also view Marta as the fetishized and phobicized object, one who we cannot help staring at throughout the film, but fear it’s murderous and evil potential. This minority Other is expelled and rejected and simultaneously serves an unconscious need for the majority. In the words of Salman Akhtar (2018) : “the minority serves as a suitable target for the externalization of the majority’s paranoid and depressive anxieties.This “need” for a minority group is ubiquitous”. (p.84) With the unfolding of events we come to see that it is in fact Ransom, Harlan’s wayward grandson, who had orchestrated the murder. Through gritted teeth, he tells her:” This house belongs to us, you will never have it or be a part of it”. Ransom had switched the medicine bottles, but Marta instinctively knew which one to use, ultimately injecting Harlan with the safe medication. What is interesting is Marta’s own belief that she had murdered Harlan.
May we consider Marta’s conviction of being the killer as resulting from the process of projective identification? Melanie Klein (1946) introduces the idea of projective identification and how it enables the individual to expel unwanted parts of itself into the other. In this way, what is deemed uncontrollable and unacceptable to the self becomes external and controllable. (p. 103) The other, in turn, may concretely feel as though they are the expelled part (s) and will act accordingly. Marta believes herself to be the killer, until Detective Blanc uncovers the truth.
Towards the final moments of the film, a livid Ransom picks a knife from Harlan’s immense knife collection and stabs Marta in the chest. However, the knife is revealed to be a toy knife, leaving Marta alive. This failed attempt may represent Ransom’s unconscious feelings of powerlessness and castration: his knife does not work. Is it also possible to consider Harlan’s vast knife collection, with pointed knives providing a background for the movie poster and various scenes throughout the film, as a reaction formation towards these feelings of collective powerlessness?
The film ends with an image of Marta, standing in the terrace of the house and clearly cementing her position as the owner. The family looks at her in shock and disbelief, it is a triumph for Marta but a nightmarish reality for those Harlan has left behind. It is in other words: ‘My house, My rules, My coffee’, which are the words etched on Harlan’s coffee cup and inherited by Marta.
Akhtar, S. (2018). Mind, culture and bloodshed: psychoanalytic reflections upon current global unrest. London: Routledge.
Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. Projective Identification: The fate of a concept, 19-46.