by Alvin G. Burstein
Card five of Henry Murray’s Thematic Apperception test
portrays a middle-aged woman looking through an open door
with an expression shock and maybe anger on her face. We
graduate students learning about the test called it The
Snoopy Mother card. Now, more sophisticated, I might retitle
it Family Secrets. Adam Smith has famously opined that the
family is where one learns about frustration. It is also the case
that all families have secrets, many of which have to do with
taboos, sexual and otherwise. The symbolic power of the
closed door to the parent’s bedroom is manifest.
I can further document the potential of family secrets to
potentiate intense psychological conflict. The only time a
patient of mine fainted in the course of being psychologically
evaluated was when he was confronted with Snoopy Mother.
Knives Out is usually called a mystery film, a Who Done It.
More precisely, it is about family secrets. A central figure is
Harlan Thromby, an 85-year-old famous writer of mysteries
and founder of a lucrative financial empire based on his
prolific authorship. The empire is a family business that
appears admirable. But when Thromby is found dead on the
morning after his birthday party in the film’s opening, the
audience begins to follow the investigation into his death.
How did he die, and who was responsible? The investigation
is carried out by the police and a private investigator, Benoit
Blanc. Blanc at the outset sits in the background, listening
while the police interview members of the family. But he is an
interesting character, one who like Sherlock Holmes, seems
to have a special relationship with the official police. Blanc,
mysteriously, speaks with a Southern accent. He comes to
play a leading role in the investigation, which he
characterizes as a donut—a mystery with a hole in its
The audience hears the initial accounts by family members
of the birthday party and its surrounding events. Those
accounts are a façade, and much of the film amounts to
uncovering the secrets behind that façade. And the secrets
behind those. The twists and turns of those discoveries are
the meat of the film, I will scrupulously avoid spoiling the
surprises that are entailed.
But its fair to reveal that Thromby is a King Lear figure, but
one in reverse. He has discovered that his family, living on
and profiting by his labors, have been stealing from him,
are planning to rebel against his plans for the empire, and
are engaged in surreptitious sexual activities. So he has
written a will disinheriting them and making Marta Cabrera,
young nurse who has been acting as his factotum, his heir.
Marta, like Thromby and Blanc, is also a fascinating
character. What makes her remarkable is that, surrounded by misrepresentations, she, like Pinocchio, cannot lie. The
puppet, you will recall, is burdened with a nose that
lengthens when he lies. Marta vomits if she lies. That
peculiarity is brought into special perspective by the
movie’s ending, in a way that will surprise you, I promise.
And I want to mention yet another fascinating character,
Nana Thromby, the deceased’s mother, though her role is a
cameo. Senile, she sits staring through a window with a
fixed stare. Like Snoopy Mother, she seems to be saying “I
know what you did.”