Last night I saw Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s wonderfully ripe murder mystery, that boasts a fine array of performances ranging from the judiciously over-the-top (Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Colette) to the genuinely affecting (Ana de Armas, brilliant), as well as those that waver between the two. Here I’m thinking of Daniel Craig, whose atrocious southern accent disguises masterful detectorial insight, and Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, the bestselling crime writer whose apparent suicide on the night of his 85th birthday set the film in motion.
The cast is great, and the cinematography and direction workmanlike, but what struck me most of all was Johnson’s brilliantly contrived screenplay, which is a masterclass not just in mystery plotting – intricate enough to keep you guessing, and simple enough to make sense as flashback after flashback sends you zipping backwards and forwards in time – but in the logical construction of the central character’s emotional arc. What follows is an analysis of one aspect of this, and contains spoilers. It is intended only for people who have seen the film.
The key character point of Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s immigrant nurse, is that she is physiologically unable to tell a lie: if she lies, she throws up. There are four (in fact five) moments in the film when this fact is utilised. Two of them are essential to the plot, but all of them are central to our understanding of the nature of her character.
Character is plot, we are taught in creative writing books and classes, and this is a perfect instance of that. (In passing: I teach on an MA in novel-writing, and it’s a constant annoyance that so many examples that come up in discussion, from me as well as from the students, are from films, rather than novels. Why is this? I hope it’s simply because i) films are more memorable, as combining visual and verbal elements and ii) they are simpler, goddamit! All the same: I’m writing this post because I think the film can teach us a useful lesson in plotting.)
The first time we learn that Marta cannot lie without vomiting is the first time she is interviewed by Daniel Craig’s private investigator, Benoit Blanc. He probes her on her actions on the night of the party, and she dissembles, trying to hide something (we don’t know what at this point), and is then sick in a flower pot. Note that we don’t see the vomit.
There’s another minor repetition of this moment later in the film when Marta and her temporary partner-in-crime Ransom Thrombey (Harlan’s grandson, played by Chris Evans) are caught after a car chase with Craig’s Blanc and the other cops. Blanc, seemingly still believing her to be innocent, asks if Ransom forced her to drive. She says yes, though that’s not true, and surreptitiously spits up in a takeaway coffee cup. Again, we don’t see the vomit, and note that it’s a small bit of puke, for a small lie.
[The spoilers proper kick in here. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film. It’s worth it, I promise!]
Before this, however, there’s a crucial scene in which Ransom helps Marta escape from the Thrombey family, who are furious when they discover that Harlan has changed his will to leave everything to Marta. He takes her to a quaint inn and encourages her to eat, saying that he’s worried that she needs sustenance after such a stressful morning. (Note the throwaway line when he asks a waiter to bring a spare bowl: brilliant.)
When she has had her fill, he asks her to tell him the truth about what happened the night of the party, adding that he knows she can’t lie without puking and that she’s just eaten a huge plate of sausages and beans – and placing the bowl in front of her. It’s a great comic scene, but at this stage we still think Ransom, though clearly the black sheep of the family, is basically a decent guy. When she tells him what happened, he suggests they work together to ensure she does get all the money, minus his cut of course. Devious, we think, but on her side. The audience buys it.
As I said, it’s a great scene in itself, but really it is just setting up the climax of the film, back at the Thrombey mansion. Here, finally, Ransom is exposed as having tried to murder Harlan by proxy by switching the drugs that Marta would give him last thing at night. Blanc is still chewing over the case, with Ransom and Marta in attendance, when Marta gets a phone call from the hospital which she relays to the room as being that Fran, the housekeeper (who’d been blackmailing Ransom, and to whom he’d given a hopefully fatal overdose: see, it is a complicated plot!) is alive. This provokes Ransom into an angry admission that he did try to kill Fran, and into vowing revenge on Marta when he’s out of jail.
Upon which, out of nowhere, Marta projectile vomits all over him.
Which i) produces a huge appreciative laugh from the audience and then ii) makes them all think, as one, three seconds later: hang on, what lie did she just tell?
The lie, of course, is that Fran actually is dead, and Ransom has been tricked into confessing to her murder. In terms of micro-plotting, is a wonderful way of conveying a plot twist: in physical, rather than verbal form. Giving the audience those three seconds to work out what’s going on is the mark of a supremely confident film makers.
But, beyond this, it pairs up with and pays back the truth-telling that Ransom forced out of Marta earlier on at the inn. Back then, Ransom tricks the truth from Marta, on pain of vomit. Now Marta tricks the truth out of Ransom, and in doing so pays him back the vomit he blackmailed her to keep inside.
But the idea that Marta might choose to lie, rather than be forced to do it, is something that has been hanging around the film since we first learned of her lie/vomit complex. After all, we’ve seen her vomit, twice – in fact there’s a third time, that I’ve just remembered, into a toilet bowl, though I can’t remember the precise moment – but we haven’t seen the vomit itself. It’s here that we see that: vomit as physical manifestation of lying, plastered all over the face of Ransom, the film’s liar-in-chief.
As I said, two of these four (five) instances are crucial to the plot, and those two instances form a deliciously neat pairing. But plot is also character, and the can’t-lie-without-puking trait is the central trait of Marta’s character. As Blanc tells her, right at the end, she is a good nurse (not just to Harlan; she tried to save Fran’s life when doing so implicated her), and a good person, too. The vomiting, so crucial to the plot, is pure expression of character.
There are plenty of other set-ups and call-backs in the screenplay – the coffee mug at the end; Harlan’s mention of how important it is to know the difference between a real and a stage knife – but these are incidentals; the plot does not hang on them. (No, not even the knife. That is a plot flourish, not a plot point. The film would work without it.)
One other point I wanted to make about the construction of the screenplay: the frequent and even repeated use of flashback (i.e. often showing you the same moment more than once) is meticulous, both in explaining what happened, and then in re-explaining, once the viewer has new information.
A great example of this is when Blanc tells Ransom that he knows how he changed his tactics once Marta had confessed the truth of what happened the night of the party, i.e. foiling his attempt to have her accidentally kill Harlan. We flashback to the scene in the inn, and the little grunt of realisation he gives. No longer a grunt of realisation about what she has done, but now about what he must do next.
Now, the thing about this kind of flashback is that it irons out the twists and turns of the plot, so that it makes sense as you go along with it, but it does this by not forcing you to watch the film again. (It builds the rewatching into the first watching, in other words.) And the film does this repeatedly. It pays back in explanation what it sows in confusion, and it does this largely through flashback.
Except for one thing. There’s one moment we are not shown again, and one that I would almost pay good money to see again. And it’s this.
There’s a clue that the director gives the viewer quite early on: the spot of blood on Marta’s sneaker that she hasn’t noticed. This isn’t a clue that she killed Harlan (we already know she didn’t: the blood spot comes when she sees him slit his throat) but that she is vulnerable. The blood spot hangs around in the film – when will someone notice and assume her guilt! – but it hangs around beyond the point when it’s still useful. Blanc has established her innocence, and still the bloodspot hasn’t been ‘used’, i.e. it’s an example of Chekhov’s gun, still hanging above the mantlepiece, still unfired.
It finally gets its moment right at the end, when Marta asks Blanc, “When did you first guess I was involved in Harlan’s death”, and he replies, “When you first set foot in front of me”. Cue the second close-up (or the third? I can’t remember) on the blood spot. So, right from the moment when he first met her, and told her that he was going to take her along with him as Watson to his Holmes, Blanc knew that she wasn’t telling the truth. But equally, seeing as he didn’t mention the blood spot, which was a massive piece of evidence against her, that she was innocent.
I’d pay good money to watch the film again just to see that early scene, and see if Craig’s gaze flicks down to her feet, and what his reaction to that is. If Johnson is as good a writer/director as I hope he is, that would be there. Anyone who goes to see the film again, please let me know if it is!