Critic Monica Castillo has penned a N.Y. Times opinion piece about how Knives Out, which everyone regards as a diverting whodunit in an Agatha Christie vein, made her feel rattled and vaguely threatened.
This is because Castillo felt a tribal kinship with Ana de Armas‘ Marta character, a South American immigrant who had worked as an assistant and care-giver for Christopher Plummer‘s rich paterfamilias (i.e., author Harlan Thrombey) before his apparent murder. Over the course of the investigation into his death, Marta has to fend off various needles and provocations that Castillo found upsetting.
The piece complains that Johnson was insensitive for subjecting Marta to certain snooty, aloof attitudes from various members of the wealthy Thrombey family. Castillo describes them as “the micro-aggressions [that] working-class immigrants face daily.” Which is a way of saying that Knives Out isn’t (ahem) woke enough.
Castillo blames Johnson, the “white and American-born” director-writer, for presenting Marta as an outsider standing on cultural eggshells, and suggests that if he were a nicer, gentler fellow he would have tried to infuse Knives Out with the woke-ier mindset of Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s Take Out and Jim McKay’s En el Séptimo Día, a pair of films that take a fuller measure of their immigrant characters.
Is Castillo saying that Johnson is using the Thrombey family members as spokespersons for his own belittling and/or dismissive attitudes about Latino immigrants? No, not exactly, but she seems to vaguely hint at this. Either way Johnson created the Thrombeys and their attitudes, she’s more or less saying, and must deal with the blowback.
How exactly has Johnson sinned?
He fails to specify Marta’s ethnic identity, for one. Because the Thrombeys are uncertain which South American country Marta is from, Johnson is passing along Anglo attitudes that “deny Marta a part of her cultural identity,” Castillo says, and in so doing “perpetuate the myth of Latino homogeneity, that our countries and customs are interchangeable, mashed together to fit neatly into a census box.”
The film also “takes pains to cast Marta as an outsider in other discomforting ways,” Castillo notes. “During a family argument, the youngest in the family, an alt-right troll, calls Marta an ethnic slur. In another scene, she’s called upon to clarify whether her family came to the United States legally, or ‘the right way,’ as one of the Thrombeys puts it. Another member of the family hints that he could have her mother deported because she’s undocumented. Several family members assert, patronizingly, to Marta that they have ‘always taken care of’ her.”
Castillo: “After viewing Knives Out I became visibly upset as I tried to explain to a group of mostly white friends that I felt as though I had seen an entirely different movie from the one they were raving about. I’ve been in some of the situations Marta endures — being asked to prove my citizenship, feeling unsafe speaking Spanish — and the movie brought up so many of these unpleasant memories repeatedly to little narrative effect.
“Instead of enjoying the twists and turns of an entertaining film, I left the theater with emotional whiplash caused by what felt like empty virtue signaling.”
The question is, what punishment should Johnson suffer? Why didn’t he use more sensitivity in writing Knives Out? How could he not know how it would adversely affect certain folks of Latin heritage?
HE suggestion: The comintern will have to decide, but HE believes that Johnson shouldn’t be cancelled for this. What he needs to do is persuade Lionsgate to donate a certain sum to the creation of therapeutic safe spaces in the lobbies of theatres playing Knives Out. By which I mean the installation of three or four easy chairs for unsettled audience members to retreat to, plus the services of a couple of physical therapists (i.e., people who could give Shiatsu massages) and a psychological counselor or two.