A Beautiful Pattern: The Aesthetics of Virtue in Knives Out

By Colin Toffelmire

Rian Johnson’s celebrated murder-mystery Knives Out is intricate, fun, and funny. The plot always leans forward, the acting is excellent, and it is relentlessly clever. What’s more, for

the persistent viewer, the film rewards multiple viewings. First come the various hints and clues in the dialogue, and then more subtle hints and clues and winking jokes in the visual storytelling. Soon enough, it becomes clear that the film is more than clever and is perhaps even brilliant. It is a triumphant combination of plotting, character, and visual aesthetic in service of beauty and goodness.

Key to any murder mystery is the complex interlocking set of relationships between its characters, but truth be told, most mysteries are quite ham-handed in their handling of it. All of the characters in the scary old house, or on the island cut off from escape, or on the creepy ship at sea, need to have some kind of relationship to one another that informs their complex motives, and that gives the author some cause for various twists, turns, and false trails (and of course, for the final reveal). In a great many cases those background relationships feel like ridiculous contrivances.[1] Johnson doesn’t have to resort to contrivances, however, because his characters are family, and as viewers, we will put up with endless intersecting instances of foolish, crass, cruel, or ridiculous behaviour between members of a single family. What could be more believable? Johnson creates a whole host of pairs, triads, or groups with complex and interesting interactions and builds them into his film at every level. He does this particularly at the level of personal aesthetic.

The official police detectives dressed in dark professional tones are set beside the private detective Benoit Blanc, with his slightly comical southern drawl and matching aesthetic. Blanc himself (calm, collected, precise) is set against the family (frenetic, confused, bickering). The family is opposed to Harlan. They are a group of grasping and rather ungrateful people living under the aegis of a demanding and domineering patriarch. Standing opposed to all of these characters is Marta. Where the family all display the various trappings of wealth, Marta is dressed quite simply and comfortably. Where they are fixated on Harlan’s will and what it could mean for them personally, she is overcome with grief and anxious stress, both because of the death of her friend and her terror that she will be found out as the cause of his death. And here we should also recall a vital aspect of Marta’s character: she is honest. Marta cannot lie because when she does, she vomits almost immediately. Her basic goodness runs so deep that it manifests in this simultaneously hilarious and disgusting physical reaction. The family, by contrast, lie in big and little ways all through the film.

Probably the most important character contrast in the story is between Marta and Ransom. Ransom, Harlan Thrombey’s grandson, is basically absent for the first half of the film (almost to the minute), though he is the topic of some discussion. When he does appear, we discover that he and Marta are antonyms of one another. They are the same in some vital respects and exactly different in others. They are Harlan’s favourites. The old patriarch loved them both for their brilliance and charm. They are the only people who ever beat him at the game Go (though Ransom, in his hubris, thought only he could beat his grandfather), and they are the people with whom he has his deep conversations. But here we find key differences as well. Harlan loved them both, but he decided to cut Ransom (and the rest of the family) out of his will, and to leave all of his wealth to Marta, because he saw Ransom as entitled and spoiled, and Marta as hardworking and faithful. Harlan’s private and public moments with Ransom were marked by dramatic conflicts and arguments, but his private moments with Marta are shown as kind and loving interactions that mark a true friendship. Harlan told Marta his secrets because he trusted her.

The juxtaposition of Marta and Ransom goes right down to the most precise details. Marta is short and slight, with dark hair and the aforementioned modest personal aesthetic of a working-class person, who always gives off the impression of precision and care. Ransom is tall and strong, with fair hair, and is clothed always in the very best. The production team specifically developed Ransom’s aesthetic to portray him as a person who has the very best of everything, but who consequently doesn’t care about any of it all that much. His cable-knit sweaters are frayed at the cuffs, his expensive silk scarf is tossed lazily around his shoulders, and his shoes, which are hardly ever even visible in frame, are very expensive loafers with the heels stepped out.[2] Ransom drives a coveted (by me at least) classic BMW, and Marta drives a gutless Hyundai Accent. The projection of perfect wealth and idleness extends even to Ransom’s home, which we enter for only one brief scene. The house is an expression of what Katie Kresser has called an “aesthetic of sufficiency,”[3] a minimalist box filled with mid-century modern furniture (complete with old issues of the New Yorker strewn casually across the coffee table).

The aesthetic contrast between Marta and Ransom can also be extended to Harlan’s mansion, which serves as the main setting for the story. The great house sits atop a hill, frequently shrouded by mist, surrounded by a menagerie of animal statuary and by huge, spooky trees worthy of a Charlie Brown Halloween special. The opening sequence of Knives Out provides us with a brief tour of Thrombey’s carnivalesque interior design. There are bizarre masks or weird briq-a-braq on every surface. Creepy puppets, mannequins, and statues leer at the viewer in almost every room. The architecture features peaked roofs, steep staircases, angular attic-rooms, and even, for heaven’s sake, a secret window on the second floor. It is a perfect expression of what Kresser calls an “aesthetic of camp.” It is also an excellent expression of Thrombey’s eccentric brilliance and creativity, which is presented to us as the core reason for his success. Over the living room, Thrombey’s scowling/smirking portrait hangs.

Harlan functions as a hinge between Marta and Ransom. In some ways their aesthetic presentations feel like opposed inheritances. Ransom has all of Harlan’s panache and wealth, and Marta has Harlan’s style, precision, and care. But they both have the brilliance necessary to match Harlan in a game of Go. This game of black and white pieces on a simple wooden board is the key to understanding Marta’s inevitable victory.

Go is a game of complex strategy that exists in a closed system, much like the game of chess. The difference is that Go has many more possible paths of play and is consequently more complex than chess. In the narrative of the film, Thrombey’s genius is the genius of a master strategist. This is how he writes his novels, with their perfect internal structure, and this is how he masters his family, and maintains careful control over their machinations, including the ones they try to keep secret from him. Nobody can best Harlan at life because nobody can best Harlan at Go. In fact, Harlan is rather convinced that nobody can best him even in death. When presented with the inevitability of his death and the potential consequences for Marta, Harlan almost instantly constructs a complex plan that will, he believes, protect his friend. Indeed, for much of the film, we are meant to believe that we are watching that careful plan unfold according to Harlan’s wishes. Then, as complications are introduced, and we come to imagine another strategist is interfering in Harlan’s game, we are given the impression that we are watching the story of Marta tweaking and fixing Harlan’s plan to keep it from unraveling. Of course, neither of those things is really happening.

One of the standard genre tropes of a murder mystery is that the audience is missing a crucial piece of information. In the case of Knives Out, this missing piece of the puzzle is Ransom’s plot to murder his grandfather. Eventually we discover that, even before Marta’s tragic “error” and Harlan’s consequent scheme to keep her safe, Ransom’s plan was already underway. From this perspective, the film is not the story of a supervening old genius providing a path for his endangered protégé. Instead, it is the tale of a brilliant but disgruntled young man working to outsmart that supervening old genius and his plan to give away the family fortune. This fits perfectly into Ransom’s understanding of himself. Near the midpoint of the film, when he hears the true story about how Harlan died, Ransom sits pensively, and mutters to himself, “I always thought I was the only one that could beat him at Go…always thought that meant something.” Ransom had come to believe that he was a match for his grandfather, and that, in this terrible and deadly battle of wits, he would triumph and resecure the family fortune. But, of course, in that scene when he learns how Harlan really died, he also learns that Marta “accidentally” switched the two vials of medication, which means that she “accidentally” spoiled Ransom’s brilliant plot at its very moment of inception.

As this reality is slowly revealed over the second half of the film, we experience another disorientation and reorientation. The film starts to look like a series of tragi-comic accidents. As Benoit Blanc explains the complex layers of overlapping events to reveal the mystery at the heart of the matter (“a donut hole, in a donut’s hole!”), we discover that Marta did not kill Harlan, but inadvertently saved him from Ransom’s plot, which then led to Harlan’s tragic and unnecessary suicide. The succession of events that followed, in which Marta tried unsuccessfully (a point to which we shall return) to follow the old genius’s plot to get her clear of culpability, is revealed as a series of entirely pointless comic rabbit-trails. None of it kept Marta in the clear, but none of it needed to, because she was never guilty. From this perspective, the whole affair is a horrible/hilarious absurdity. Blanc even says, “the arc of this case is a tragedy of errors.”

But this leads us to the final reorientation, the true reveal of the film that sets both the actual events, and their meaning, before us as viewers. In the classic murder-mystery scene, where our intrepid and eccentric detective lays out the logic of the events before us, we learn that the story we’ve been watching is not about a supervening genius, nor is it about a battle of wits between grandfather and grandson. Nor is the story we’ve been watching merely a series of absurd accidents (though it is this, in some sense). The story we’ve been watching is a story about genius (like so many murder mysteries), but it is not a story about mere intellectual genius. It is a story about moral genius.

As Blanc lays out what happened in the Big Reveal, we see the cool precision of Ransom’s actions. He is intelligent and exacting, and at several points does exactly what Harlan told Marta to do, but always better, always with greater attention to detail than Marta managed. But when we arrive at the true moment of revelation, and Marta realizes that she “accidentally” switched the medications back, and that she did not poison Harlan, Blanc provides for us the definitive interpretive moment of the film. “Not accidentally,” he says, and then goes on to tell her, “You gave him the correct medication because you are a good nurse.”

And there it is. Marta is a good nurse. She is a good friend. She is a good sister and daughter. She is kind, hard-working, and honest. Indeed, though in her brilliance she was able throughout the story to execute Harlan’s plan and keep a step ahead of the police (if not Blanc), at the various moments when keeping to the plan and keeping herself safe would have required acts of evil, she refused. She derailed the plan instead of allowing Fran to die, even though to do so placed her, and her family, in terrible peril. In that moment, and many others in the film, Marta eschews the cold and calculating genius that marked Harlan and Ransom, and instead does what is hard and beautiful.

Which brings us back to Go. While the plot of Knives Out does not turn out to be a life-sized version of a strategy game between Harlan and Marta, or Harlan and Ransom, or Ransom and Marta, the game is an interpretive key to the film. Johnson tells us why Marta wins. Early in the film, in Marta’s flashback scene where she first recounts the events of the night of Harlan’s death, she tells us the story of their game of Go. It feels, at the time, like a charming bit of character work that has only a slight bearing on the plot. But if we attend closely, we discover not only that Marta could beat Harlan at Go, but that Harlan cannot beat her. “Why can’t I beat you at this game?” he asks in frustration. Marta’s answer reveals to us the theme of the film. “Because I’m not playing to beat you, I’m playing to build a beautiful pattern.”

Harlan, Ransom, and all of the rest of the Thrombey clan are playing to win, to beat one another. Marta is building a beautiful pattern. She is a kind and caring nurse, who listens to Harlan and helps him with his troubles. She is a friend to the members of the family. She is patient and long-suffering toward their rudeness and racism. She takes care of her family and protects them. She (quite literally) cannot lie. She is not simply clever; her cleverness is something more.

Johnson is quite overt in his ending that Marta wins because she is good, but here I’m trying to extend that argument a little bit. Thinkers in the pre-Christian and Christian tradition, from Plato down to Aquinas, speak of the virtues and of the unity of virtue. The virtues are those qualities we consider good, like justice, honesty, or temperance. The unity of the virtues is the idea that, in some sense, all of these virtues are really one thing. Goodness without honesty isn’t really goodness, temperance without humility isn’t really temperance, and so on. In Knives Out, Johnson isn’t operating with those categories exactly, but something similar is going on. Marta is profoundly intelligent, as are Harlan and Ransom, but what distinguishes Marta here is that her intelligence is expressed in the beautiful pattern she builds, both in her game with Harlan, and in her actions throughout the story. Her intelligence is not intelligence alone, but it is also goodness, and her goodness is not goodness alone, it is also truth, and her truth is not truthfulness alone, it is also beauty, all of which is expressed in the aesthetic of both her actions and her presentation as a character. Ransom, for all of his intelligence and ambition, is a fool because his intelligence is not paired with goodness or beauty. The argument is even expressed at the level of Ransom’s aesthetic, in the façade of beauty that never quite hides his indifferent selfishness. His frayed sweaters and stepped out shoes tell us the story of his soul. In Knives Out, only Marta is truly brilliant (smart, bright, luminescent, the star that guides the way).

Johnson explores competing visions of what is virtuous, and of what the good life, and being successful might entail. Ransom’s brilliance, and to a significant degree Harlan’s as well, is put in service of a utilitarian end: who will get the fortune? Marta, however, puts her brilliance in service of the good of the beautiful pattern. She ends up with the fortune, but in a significant sense that is happenstance, or, more accurately, the will of the omnipotent author.[4] In his well-known account of virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre reflects on what it is to teach somebody to play chess.[5] He suggests that at first we say that one does not cheat because it is unfair, and violates the rules, but in the end, if we have taught the game well, the real reason not to cheat is because it makes the game meaningless. To win a rigged game is, by definition, to lose. In a sense this is what sets Marta apart from Ransom and Harlan. Both men are willing to flip the game board, to distract and misdirect the family and the police in order to secure the destiny of the inheritance. And, it is worth saying, we have an entire sub-genre of howdunnit movies, from The Sting to Ocean’s 11 to Now You See Me, that revel in the triumph of the lie told for noble ends. Johnson refuses this path, though it is there for him to take. Instead, Marta does in the aftermath of Harlan’s death what she does in her games of Go with the old man. Her way of playing along with Harlan’s plan regularly forces her into moments of decision that will either end in disaster or will require of her particularly beautiful moves. This is especially true of the many moments in which a simple lie, a quick bit of clever cheating, would make the conflict of the plot dissolve. But, of course, she won’t. In part, she won’t because she can’t (the puking thing), but ultimately, she won’t because she won’t. Marta’s fundamental goodness causes most of her problems, but this also creates the circumstances in which she makes her most beautiful moves.

This lesson is important to us, because it points to a truth that I fear we have left behind. Intelligence absent goodness, truth, and beauty, may not be intelligence at all. We have convinced ourselves that base cleverness is enough to earn our admiration, and consequently we have taught ourselves to admire wickedness. This film was made in the age of Trump, in the age of the rise of the purportedly clever demagogues. Far too many of us have convinced ourselves that such people may be morally suspect, but they sure are smart. Knives Out calls the premise of this perspective into doubt. What if these people who divorce intelligence from goodness are, exactly for this reason, fools? What if the virtue of intelligence, or perhaps “wisdom” is better, must also express humility, kindness, justice, and the rest? Perhaps the good life does not consist of “winning”, but of trying to build a beautiful pattern.

Many ethicists who explore the nature of virtue are hesitant, or even downright unwilling, to lean on this account of things, which is a version of the argument for the unity of the virtues. Many, including MacIntyre, admit a division between the intellectual and the moral virtues. Perhaps they are right, but frankly I have my doubts. I cannot shake the feeling that what is good, and what is true, and what is beautiful are, in a deep and meaningful way, mutually defining realities. As a Christian theologian I ground these realities in the nature of God. I don’t think that Johnson would make the theological move (though he was a youth group kid once upon a time), but I think that Knives Out certainly sustains at least the ethical move. To turn away from the utilitarian path of means justified by ends, and to take instead the other path, the better path, the path (to borrow the psalmist’s language) of the righteous, is an act of beauty, and thus, a true act of brilliance.

Colin Toffelmire is an Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies and the Chair of the School of Ministry at Ambrose University


Notes

[1] The film Clue capitalizes on this lazy trope for many of its best jokes. Note that the board game Clue, upon which the film is based, receives a mention in Knives Out.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69GjaVWeGQM&ab_channel=VanityFair

[3] https://imagejournal.org/article/an-aesthetic-of-lack-or-notes-on-camps/

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/12/rian-johnson/602884/

[5] After Virtue, 188.

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