Knives Out and the Sliding Scale of Goodness

Story (from IMDb): A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Themes: family, keeping secrets, kindness, comparison between the beliefs we hold and how we put them in action (or don’t)

Age Appropriateness: (Rated PG-13) Teen (13-18) and up (Deals with adult themes like murder, drug use, language, and some sexual discourse. But even more so, because of the pace and story younger kids may easily lose interest).

Knives Out was probable the movie I enjoyed watching the most this last year. The movie plays like a classic “parlor-who-done-it.” You are introduced to the family of suspects early on, you get to slowly uncover clues, and at the end you get that wonderful moment where the incredible detective walks through “what really happened.” The movie is also done mostly “Columbo style.” You are shown who most likely committed the crime very early on and most of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the most likely murderer and detective. The very early twist is that the Rian Johnson (screen writer and director) works hard to make you really like the “murderer.” I found myself oscillating for most of the movie between (a) hoping that it would turn out that the individual didn’t actually commit the crime and (b) hoping that the detective wouldn’t figure it out if they did.

(major spoilers ahead)

It is a real trick to get an audience to root for the person who we are told very on in the movie is a murderer. And I think Johnson tries to get us on Marta Cabrera’s side through 3 very affective techniques. First, he makes the murder completely accidental (making the situation such so that Marta can’t confess). Then Johnson makes the other characters so unlikable that you can’t help but root for Marta. Then finally, Johnson sprinkles in a good deal of “Pavlov dog.” I lost count on how many times other characters in the movie told me in one way or another that Marta was a good person. How can I not like Marta if everyone keeps telling me how good she is?

Let me tell you, these strategies totally worked for me. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I completely rooted for Marta. But as I’ve spent time really reflecting on the movie, I keep finding myself wondering…. how good was Marta really? Marta lies and sides steps the truth all over the place (really challenging for someone suffering from Emetophobia, getting physically sick every time she lies), she hides evidence from police, partners with the morally ambiguous black sheep of the family, drives dangerously in a car chase, and seeks to pay off a blackmailer. And she does it all this so she can protect a mother who is in the country illegally and keep a fortune that she deserves no more than anyone else in the story. Is Marta actually a good person?

I wonder if it is so easy to buy into Marta being good because Johnson uses a sliding scale sort of understanding of morality that most of us (at least in some small part of our hearts) believe in. People often think they aren’t that bad because they have that one uncle (or other family member) who is way worse. But that uncle has a neighbor who is worse than them and that neighbor has a coworker worse than them and so on. I wonder if we could somehow scientifically measure how “bad” everyone in the world was and then put the 2 absolutely worse people in the same room together, that after they spent some time together, they would both leave muttering, “I knew it, at least I’m not as bad as that guy.” It is so easy for us to look around and at the very least find someone we believe is worse than us because we convince ourselves that that their sins are worse than ours.

Is Marta good? Well, she doesn’t seem as bad in some of the same ways that others in the movie are. But does that make her good? And when stuck in a couple really tight spots she doesn’t do the MOST reprehensible things. But does that make her good? Not really… it just makes her not repugnant. Is Marta good? No. But neither are the rest of us.

I’ve seen a quote going around on Facebook recently possibly from John Alan Turner. The quote reads, “It’s hard to convince people that a God they can’t see loves them, when a church they can see doesn’t seem to like them.” I totally agree with the quote… but I’m not sure I agree with it for the same reason many other’s might. When I read that quote, what I realize is just how much I am part of the problem. Let me be honest for a minute, when I really think about it there is not a single person on this planet that I have spent a whole lot of time with that I’ve actually liked ALL the time. How I am going to show God’s love when I don’t ALWAYS like anyone?

The church is full of people who aren’t ALL that great ALL the time. In fact, I would argue that this statement probably includes every single person in the church. It’s always going to be hard for the church to convince people of God’s love, because none of us are able to share it with everyone, when they need it, all the time. Most of us may be more good than that one crazy uncle most of the time, but that doesn’t make us “good” people. Thank goodness we have a Savior.


About messyfaithreverberantgrace

I like canoeing, beaches, reading, movies, and talking with people about faith and God.
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