A running joke in Rian Johnson's surprising hit mystery, Knives Out, is the fact that the members of an upper-class family in Massachusetts can't recall where their caregiver is from.
They tell each other (and others) that she is from Paraguay. Or Uruguay. Or that her mother in an illegal alien from Brazil. It doesn't really matter to them -- she's just a disposable household artifact coveted by patriarch Harlan Thrombey (a reverent Christopher Plummer), whose demise sets up the domino pieces that lead to more murder and mayhem in this clever but slightly deflating movie.
The caregiver, Marta Cabrera, is played by doe-eyed newcomer Anna de Armas, a Cuban actress before now only known in America for playing a hologram in 2017's Blade Runner remix. Surrounded by a large, well-known cast of snobby misanthropes that includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans and Toni Collette, she steals every scene by reaction shot only. This family is utterly nuts, she says with her face cast in disbelief.
Marta had cared for Harlan and was his only real friend, surrounded as he was by a family of bloodsuckers looking to cash in on his fortune made by writing mystery novels (and if he's so successful, why doesn't he have any staff who are part of the proceedings?). Another recurring joke is when Curtis's character tells the investigator (played by Daniel Craig in a Southern accent that one character calls CSI:KFC) that all the siblings are indeed self-made.
Instead, we find that each gained their modicum of success from Harlan's financial generosity. Harlan kept Curtis's real-estate company afloat, a son (Michael Shannon) looks over his estate, and a widow (Collette) of another son milks him for tuition money for her daughter. He decides to cut each of them off, thereby setting up the motivation each has for his murder. Early in the movie, he is found reclining on a sofa, his throat slit.
The set up for a parlor game mystery is done well, with Johnson's camera gliding effortlessly between characters for hints of instability and nefariousness. There's even a scene where Marta's mother watches an old episode of Murder She Wrote in Spanish. Like the recently remade Murder on the Orient Express, it may take a wise detective to get to the bottom of it.
But midway through, there is an abrupt shift that leads the movie into different terrain. Marta moves from innocent to potential culprit. Without giving too much away, she knows more that it seems about how Harlan died. She has little to gain from his death at first but that changes too.
This is where politics enters the picture in cunning ways. Marta is a forgotten servant by the maddening siblings, who in one scene tell her that she'll be looked after once the will is settled and considered as a member of the family. They then ask her to bring them tea -- not exactly an embracing moment of familial love. Craig's investigator at first sees her only as a domestic ally, a role that Marta uses to her advantage.
Evans' character clouds the picture even more. He is the prodigal son, a wastrel who'd rather drink and carouse than have anything to do with his family. As Harlan's grandson, he is also told that he'll be cut off from any more money. He takes this callously but in stride, a modern James Dean of uncaring youth -- what, me worry?
With Armas serving to the poor rich folk but using them to her benefit, it appears that the movie is making a point that immigrants are sometimes sharper than their supposed benefactors. She remains a beacon of warmth and all-knowing observation, unlike anyone else in the film. She is accidently thrust into the middle of the mayhem.
Her apparent victory over the snobs makes for a sense of immigrant triumph in a world of border walls and cages. Her dominance of the upper class makes for a good yarn when the divide between rich and poor is a yawning chasm.
But that's where I found the movie a bit pat. The endpoint of the movie is a bit too obvious and relies more on exposition than action. The mystery peters out instead of climaxing, a cardinal sin for any good thriller. It somehow leaves one unsatisfied. Marta's moral victory is not enough for a good movie to make.
But in the meantime, it is worth watching for the eccentricities of the rich, for Armas's bravura performance, for the machinations behind the scenes of a stately mansion that is so unlike the Downton Abbey niceties. I just wish it could have gone further with the slingers of outrageous fortune in this family, making them a bit wilder and a little less needy.