[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Knives Out.]
I spoke in the car about the hole at the center of this donut. And yes, what you and Harlan did that fateful night seems at first glance to fill that hole perfectly. A donut hole in the donut’s hole. But we must look a little closer. And when we do, we see that the donut hole has a hole in its center — it is not a donut hole at all but a smaller donut with its own hole, and our donut is not a hole at all!
Leave it to Rian Johnson to take something consistently sweet like a donut or a whodunit and twist it into something that’s brand new, inventively clever, and still tastes and feels like said donut or whodunit murder mystery. The filmmaker’s 2019 murder mystery Knives Out might be that year’s most rewatchable film, a jam-packed ride of smart entertainment full of perfect actors performing a perfect script lensed perfectly. And now that any damn one can stream it on Amazon Prime, I thought I’d help dunk us all into the multiple donuts at the hole of this impeccable picture and its impeccable ending.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead. We know this from the first scene on. His throat is damn slit, and his blood is all over the damn sofa. Johnson does not pull any such “he was alive the whole time!” plot twist trickery in the final moments. For about half of the running time, like any other whodunit, the central question of the mystery novelist patriarch is indeed as simple as: “Whom has done this?” There are plenty of star-studded suspects in the form of Thrombey’s family (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette), and plenty of juicy motives for each of them (lack of respect, lack of financial support, discovery of infidelity). There’s Harlan’s greatest ally: his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), a woman who is so pure of heart she literally vomits any time she tries to lie. And there is, of course, a blissfully eccentric detective: Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig having the time of his life), a Southern-fried private investigator who’s here to sort through the truth (or find the “donut hole,” as he’s fond of saying) and answer the simple question of “whom has done this”!
Until, around halfway through the picture, Johnson pulls the rug out from under us and tell us exactly whom has done this. It was Marta. We are shown this explicitly. It was an accidental death, yes, but Marta is the person who accidentally injected Harlan with an overdose of morphine instead of the actual medicine he needed. Utilizing beyond-clever flashback editing and camera framing, unreliable narration, and the revelation of why Harlan’s throat appeared very slit, Johnson shows us how he grifted us, how he pulled the rug under the seemingly simple question of “whom has done this” to ask like eighteen more complicated ones. And then, back in the present tense, we watch Marta “work with” Blanc to cover up her tracks resolutely, in accordance with Harlan’s final wishes (he really and truly loved her)! What an entertaining friggin’ puzzle this movie is!
As the narrative barrels forward, including the surprise revelation that Harlan left everything in his estate, including the Thrombey house, to Marta (making her a primary suspect and new target of vitriol of the Thrombey family), she makes an escape thanks to an unlikely new ally: Ransom Thrombey (Evans and a beautiful sweater), the no-good black sheep of the family who’s disregarded as an opportunistic, greedy meanie. Offering his sympathies as the outsider of the Thrombey family, he gets Marta to spill the beans (thankfully not literally) about the actual truth. And the two decide to undergo a shaky alliance of sorts, Ransom offering increasingly aggressive tactics to keep her tracks covered, even as more chaos, destruction, and even the emaciated body of a wouldbe blackmailer (Fran, the Thrombey housekeeper played by Edi Patterson) piles up around them. Can they get away with it? Should they? How can the pure-hearted Marta keep this all a secret from Blanc?
And then… the actual ending occurs. And Johnson carefully places a rug back under our feet as he indulges in one of the greatest tropes of the whodunit: The eccentric detective eccentrically describing the truth behind the case. The donut hole at the center of the donut hole, if you will. We watch as Blanc explains carefully — well, maybe not “carefully” but certainly “colorfully” — the truth behind this twisted collection of raw dough: Ransom, whom we thought to be Marta’s newfound ally, is the only person in the room guilty of a crime.
When Ransom found out who was gonna get all the goodies from Harlan’s will, he purposefully switched Marta’s two medicine vial labels to ensure an overdose would happen, and stole an antidote to boot. But Marta, ever the capable and pure-hearted worker and friend, knew innately what the correct vial was, picking it based not on the label but on the subtle difference and detection in appearance and feel. Which means that she did not kill Harlan Thrombey. She gave him the exact correct dosage. If only both parties in that room knew, Harlan wouldn’t have slit his throat to protect her, and he would still be alive.
Ransom himself hired Blanc to find the truth of Marta’s “murder.” When Fran discovered this scheme, peeping Ransom hiding some evidence, she’s the one who sent a blackmail note to Ransom, and he forwarded it to Marta implicating Fran. Then, he overdosed Fran with the deadly morphine, leaving her body to be discovered by Marta, hoping Blanc would pin her on that murder as well! Ransom, of course, denies this all: until Marta gets a call from the hospital saying that Fran is alive and will, in fact, spill the beans on Ransom’s dastardly doings. And then, Johnson indulges in another lovely trope: The villain revealing his plan and vowing revenge! Yes, Ransom did all of these things, and he’d do them again!
And then… Marta does spill the beans literally on Ransom. She pukes all over him, revealing that she lied. The hospital call didn’t say Fran was going to recover and confess — it said that Fran had died. Ransom’s confession was thus of an actual murder of Fran. And Ransom, figuring “why not go two for two?”, grabs a knife from Harlan’s knife chair (knives out, baby!) and hurtles toward Marta!
Now, if we’ve been paying attention, we already know this won’t work. And we already know Ransom has been the bad guy the entire time. Harlan Thrombey told Marta, and us, explicitly, right before the scene where Johnson “told us explicitly” that Marta had killed him. In discussing the nature of games (Harlan loved playing Go with Marta), Harlan says this about Ransom as a player:
Ransom. Jesus, Ransom. Oh, there’s so much of me in that kid. Confident, stupid, I don’t know, protected. Playing life like a game without consequence, until you can’t tell the difference between a stage prop and a real knife. I don’t fear death. But, oh, God, I’d like to fix some of this before I go. Close the book with a flourish. I guess we’ll see. Hm?
And then, we see. Ransom’s knife is, of course, a stage prop, not real. It retracts within itself the moment it hits Marta’s pure heart, revealing itself with a flourish as nothing more than a toy. Marta is the only one who wasn’t ever playing any game. All she navigated was the present tense of what she believed to be the truth in front of her, the consequences of actions both given their proper respects and never run away from. Ransom, conversely, is introduced from moment one as a person who runs away from every consequence, who does nothing but play games to get out of the actual truth. The only way to fix this broken reality, to give Marta’s purity its proper path, was to tell the truth about Ransom’s horrible games. As soon as that truth comes out, the games are over. Marta stands upon the Thrombey’s old mansion, an ode to secrets and lies. With objective clarity, her coffee mug reveals the new stasis: Her house, her rules, her coffee. She deserves them all and more.
And then we realize, truly and sincerely: It was about “whom has done this” the whole time! Johnson — please send new rugs to my house, because I am tired of you pulling them from under me over and over.
For more on Knives Out, here’s our MasterWork piece on Rian Johnson.