KNIVES OUT*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by AC
A housekeeper, Fran, carries a breakfast tray through an expansive mansion, full of quirky antiques, display knives, and mystery novels, to the novels’ elderly author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). He’s not in his bedroom, so she goes up a hidden staircase to his study. She discovers Harlan’s body, in repose on his couch, covered in blood. His throat’s been slit. She curses and drops the tray.
A week later, after Harlan’s funeral, a young woman named Marta (Ana de Armas) wakes up in a panic in the bedroom of her family’s house. Her sister calls her down for breakfast and says Marta needs to go back to the Thrombey home that day. Marta was Harlan’s personal registered nurse, and investigators want to speak to her about his death. Marta was also invited to the memorial, which also happens to be that day. At breakfast, Marta’s mother tells off her sister for playing a show about murder on her laptop. Marta insists it isn’t a big deal, but it’s clear the show upset her.
Marta drives her beater car to the Thrombey mansion and is welcomed warmly by the family. We then meet the family as they are questioned by the investigators, who are Lt. Elliot, Trooper Wagner, and a mysterious figure sitting by the piano, randomly playing a high note to rattle the interviewees every so often. He eventually introduces himself as famed private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
First, they question Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harlan’s eldest daughter. Linda owns her own company and is very clear she’s the one who runs it, her husband Richard (Don Johnson) merely helping. We discover through her that Harlan was killed on the evening after a party for his 85th birthday. Linda insists she and Harlan had a good relationship, but her terse tone and measured words mean we are not so sure she is truthful. But she recalls her brother Walt (Michael Shannon) had an argument with Harlan at the party. She also has a low opinion of Walt’s son Jacob, who is always on his phone being an alt-right troll on social media. (The entire family refers to him as a Nazi.)
Under questioning, Walt remembers that argument – Harlan wanted to let Walt go from the publishing company that Walt runs on behalf of his father. Walt anxiously asks Harlan if he is being fired, but Harlan pats his cheek and says they’ll talk about it the next day. But Walt tells the investigators something less serious. In turn, Walt accuses Richard of also having an argument with Harlan the night of the party in his office, overhearing Harlan exclaim, “You tell her, or I will!”
Richard remembers that argument, recollecting that Harlan had shown him incriminating photos of him cheating on Linda. Harlan says he’ll give Linda a letter in a purple envelope, telling her everything, unless Richard tells her himself. But Richard tells the investigators that “You tell her, or I will!” was in reference to putting Harlan’s mother “Great Nana” in a nursing home.
We also meet Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), who is a widower of another of Harlan’s sons. She is a spiritual lifestyle guru and tells the investigators that she’s still very close to the family, even after her husband’s death. However, the audience sees that Joni is barely tolerated at family gatherings. Harlan pays Joni’s daughter Meg’s tuition at college.
There is also Wanetta “Great Nana” Thrombey (K Callan), who is Harlan’s mother and is present at the party and the investigation. However, she is senile and rarely speaks.
Linda and Richard’s son Ransom (Chris Evans) is mentioned but is noticeably absent when the investigators are questioning the rest of his family. “Ransom” is apparently his middle name. His first name is “Hugh,” but nobody calls him that besides the housekeeper Fran. Before the party, Jacob, while in the bathroom masturbating to dead deer (according to his family), overheard Ransom and Harlan in Harlon’s office through the vent. Ransom apparently had a blowout fight with Harlan and left the house in a huff. Jacob had overheard Ransom say, “I’m warning you” during the fight.
To the family’s surprise, Benoit Blanc reveals that he was hired by an anonymous employer, and implies that Harlan was murdered by someone in the family. Lt. Elliott and Trooper Wagner insist that due to the blood pattern, no one else could have been involved, but Blanc persists – he must know the truth of why he was hired.
Richard, knowing that now Blanc will be searching for motives for Harlan’s murder, sneaks away into Harlan’s office. He searches for the letter that Harlan was going to give Linda. He uses a letter opener to break open the locked drawer and discovers the sealed purple envelope inside. Ripping open the envelope, he discovers a blank letter. He sighs in relief, muttering, “son of a bitch” and throws a decorative baseball out the window.
Picking up the baseball while walking outside, Blanc recounts the timeline of death that he’s deduced by questioning all the family members. After the party, Harlan and Marta retired to his study to play Go and administer his medications before Harlan went to bed. Shortly before midnight, Joni heard a loud thunk from the study and went to investigate. Harlan answers the door, with Marta busying herself in the corner. He explains genially to Joni that he tipped over the Go gameboard by accident, and that everything is alright. Joni goes back to meditating. Walt was smoking outside on the porch and saw Marta leave in her car at midnight. Linda is a light sleeper and often awoken by anyone using the creaky stairs leading up to Harlan’s study. She was awoken shortly after 1am, and Walt sees Harlan going down the stairs to get a snack. He calls for Harlan to go back to bed, which he does. Linda was awoken again later, by the family’s two dogs barking.
Last to be questioned is Marta, who’s anxiously sitting by a sunroom, staring at a portrait of Harlan smiling down at her. She sneaks to the window to overhear the investigators outside, and Blanc surprises her. He invites her outside and explains that he wanted to question her last because he knows she’ll tell the truth. It turns out Marta has a condition that causes her to vomit if she lies. And as Harlan’s personal nurse, she was Harlan’s confidante. Blanc asks her point-blank if Richard was cheating on Linda. She says no, then immediately vomits into a decorative vessel. Blanc then asks her to describe what went on after the party.
Marta remembers the truth. Once they’re in his study after the party, she wants to give him his medications right away so Harlan can go to bed at a reasonable time, but he insists on playing Go with her. She indulges him, and Harlan teases her ability to always beat him at Go. She tells him she isn’t playing to win; she’s just making a beautiful pattern. He pretends there’s an earthquake, then knocks the board over.
Marta rolls her eyes, then goes into her medical bag to give Harlan his two nightly medications. She administers them to him with a syringe via a port in his upper arm, while he confides in her that he’s not sure if he did right by his family. He takes a display knife from a stand and mentions how he can’t tell now which knives are real and which ones are props. He stabs this knife into the trunk they were using as a table for the game – it’s a real knife, and it’s sharp. It’s clear during this exchange that Marta and Harlan are very fond of each other. Marta winks at Harlan and asks if he’d like something for his pain, implying it’s morphine. He laughs and says yes, and she reaches into her bag to get it. But she realizes that she’d read the vial labels wrong – she gave him 100mg of morphine instead of another medication. Normally she gives him 30, and 100 will kill him in 10 minutes unless she can administer another medication to counteract it. She starts to go through her bag, becoming more and more upset when she can’t find the counteragent. Even if she calls the paramedics now, they won’t get to the house in time to save him. But she must try.
She starts to call 911, but Harlan stops her. He knows he’s gone and wants to save Marta. He knows Marta’s mother, as an undocumented immigrant, will be deported if Marta is investigated. Undeterred, Marta starts to run for help downstairs, but he trips her before she gets to the door, and she falls to the floor. This was the thump that Joni heard. When Joni knocks, Harlan insists that he’ll take care of it and gets Marta to face the corner so he can answer Joni. As Harlan speaks with Joni, we see that Marta is starting to cry.
After Joni leaves, Harlan gives her specific instructions and insists that she must do as he says. Marta must make it obvious when she’s leaving – this is when Walt sees her leave at midnight. As she drives off, she doesn’t quite remember whether she needs to turn off the road before or after the security gate to bypass the cameras, but she turns off the road. She then sneaks back via a side gate. The two dogs are there, but they like her, so they greet her without barking. She gets into the house by climbing a trellis into a false window to the floor his bedroom is on. (She tells him he is crazy for suggesting such a thing, but he persists.) She slips as part of the trellis breaks off and falls to the ground, but manages to get into the window. She goes to Harlan’s bedroom, puts on his robe and hat, and pretends to be Harlan going down the stairs to get a snack – this is when Linda hears the stairs, and Walt sees “Harlan” from the porch. This is her alibi that Harlan was alive well after Marta left. She then leaves the way she came down the trellis. The last thing that Harlan tells her that she absolutely must not be seen. But in her memory, as she lands on the ground, mission fulfilled, she turns to the window and sees Great Nana staring right at her. Marta freezes in a panic, but Great Nana only says, “Ransom, are you back already?” Thinking that she’s in the clear, Marta runs away into the night.
Knowing that the fate of her mother rests in her hands, Marta follows Harlan’s instructions about how to describe what happened that night without throwing up. She carefully tells Blanc a truncated version – essentially, that they played Go, she gave him his medication, then she left. Blanc accepts her version of events, then tells her he plans on investigating the rest of the grounds. And he wants her to shadow him as he does so, to give him context. Unlike the other family members, he trusts her because she “has a good heart.” Marta, unable to get out of the situation without incriminating herself, accepts, then manages to leave to the bathroom. She turns on the bathroom sink to hide the noise, then vomits into the toilet.
Later that day, the family holds a memorial for Harlan. Marta has a panic attack, knowing she was the one responsible for Harlan’s death. Meg pulls her aside, asking if she wants to leave. They go to another sitting room and pull out some joints in a secret drawer in a trophy above the fireplace. Marta refuses the joint, and Meg shrugs and throws it into the fire. Walt joins them later, to tell Marta they want to take care of her financially.
That night, when she goes home, she watches a TV program in Spanish with her mother. She then recalls what happened after she left Harlan’s study. After leaving the first time, she goes back into the study to tell Harlan she’s changed her mind, only to find him lying on the couch with a knife held to his own neck. She pleads with him, but he only assures her that everything will be all right, before slitting his own throat. She gasps in horror and covers her mouth to stifle a scream, then rushes out of the study again. She pauses at the landing to cry, then pulls herself together. She’s going to get through this for her mother.
Back at home, Marta holds her mother’s hand tightly. The camera pans down her leg, which she often fidgets in anxiety, to focus on her white sneaker, which she wears throughout the movie. There is a tiny drop of blood in between the shoelaces when she witnessed Harlan slit his own throat.
The next morning, Marta joins Blanc and the investigators to examine the grounds. The security cameras record in VHS, and they get the security guard to find the right tape. Marta realizes that she drove the car off the road too late, that her car will be seen in the footage sneaking off. By happenstance, they have her control the VCR, and she pretends there is a malfunction. No matter – they’ll examine the tape later at headquarters. Marta gathers the VHS tape and scrambles it with a large magnet she swiped off the fridge.
Walking ahead of the group toward the side entrance, Marta realizes that her shoeprints from sneaking back can be seen in the muddy path, just as Blanc realizes he could examine shoeprints there. Playing clueless, she walks back toward the group to Blanc’s frustration, covering her tracks. To boot, the two dogs run over and mess up the muddy path some more.
Getting to the side of the house, Blanc surmises that someone could have snuck back into the house using the trellis. One of the dogs comes to Marta, carrying the broken piece of trellis in his mouth. She realizes that Blanc will be able to tell that someone climbed up the trellis, so she throws the trellis piece far, and the dog goes after it.
The group goes inside and upstairs. Marta shows them the false window accessible by the trellis. Blanc examines the rug leading from the window, and notes there is fresh mud on the window ledge. There is a commotion outside – Ransom is back, peeling in on his BMW. The two dogs rush in and bark aggressively at him, and he huffs at them in annoyance. The investigators meet him on the porch, but he rebuffs them.
The family is upset that Ransom only showed up now, missing the funeral and the memorial, and is only early for the will reading later on that day. They tell him he is useless and that Harlan planned on cutting him off, but he only tells them to “Eat shit,” and the entire family blows up, yelling at everyone else. This isn’t new – at some point during Harlan’s 85th birthday party, they all started arguing about politics. Joni wants to protect undocumented immigrants, while Richard yells drunkenly that they should follow the law. He calls Marta in and uses her as an example, thinking that her family entered the US legally. (Another ongoing joke throughout the movie is that every family member gets Marta’s country of origin wrong.) Marta stood there in stunned silence, not wanting to say that her mother is undocumented, but also not wanting to lie and throw up.
Seeing the present fracas, Blanc sighs and comforts Marta, then leaving so he can finish the rest of the investigation. As he leaves, one of the dogs brings him the trellis piece. He looks up, putting the pieces together, so to say.
The will reading begins. The married couples all hold each other in support, thinking that they will get a big chunk of Harlan’s estate. The will executor rips open the legal documents and begins reading. It turns out, Harlan amended his will shortly before his death. His new will left his entire estate and all of his publishing rights to Marta, leaving his family nothing. He wanted his family to learn how to live for themselves and insists in a letter that it is all for the best. The family explodes once more in disbelief. Ransom, sitting in a corner by himself, laughs and leaves the room. Marta is in a state of shock, and the family starts to surround her, demanding answers she doesn’t have.
They hound Marta outside as she tries to escape in her car. But her car won’t start. Another car peels in – it’s Ransom in his BMW. He beckons her to join him. She escapes in Ransom’s car, and they drive away.
The family tries to understand what happened and why Harlan would cut them all off. It’s discovered that Joni has been double-dipping. Harlan has been paying Meg’s tuition directly to the school, but in a clerical oversight, Joni also got the same money for herself. In a flashback, Harlan says he will sign one last check for her and no more.
The family tries to find loopholes in the will, and the executor accuses them of just looking on Google. One of the loopholes is the slayer statute – if Marta is found responsible for Harlan’s death, she will not get a cent. This is another reason why Harlan helped her cover it up.
Ransom takes Marta to a diner and gets her to eat since she hasn’t been eating all day. He tells her that he knew they would be cut off and that maybe it’s time he lived for himself on his own. But he still wants the truth. He reminds her that she’s just eaten, that she can’t lie without throwing up, and then places an empty bowl in front of her. Ransom then asks Marta to tell him everything.
Later on (it’s much later, Ransom has a lot of empty beer bottles next to him on the dinner table), Ransom says he will help Marta get away with it, like destroying the toxicology report (showing a morphine overdose) or anything that might implicate her. He hates his family that much and knows how fond Harlan was of Marta. Ransom always thought that he was the only one capable of beating Harlan at Go, but Marta did it all the time. But he will only help on the condition that she give him his share of Harlan’s estate. It’s a win/win. She agrees (“In for a penny, in for a pound,” he says), and he takes her back to her family’s home.
At some point during the night, Meg calls Marta. Meg tries to convince Marta to renounce her inheritance entirely since “it’s the right thing to do,” to Marta’s surprise. Marta always thought they were friends. Marta assures Meg that she will use Harlan’s money to pay tuition for her, then hangs up. Meg looks back – her entire family is there, hoping to get their inheritance back.
The next day, Marta is surprised to see a ton of press and news vans outside her house. It’s been discovered that she is the sole inheritor of Harlan’s estate. She tries to sneak out the back, but Walt is there. He tries to convince her that they can help her handle the attention, vaguely threatening her with his cane. She says that Harlan’s resources are now her resources, and shuts the door on him. Examining her mail, she discovers a blank envelope. In it, she finds a copy of the top half of Harlan’s toxicology report from the county medical examiner’s office. The bottom half is missing, but there’s a handwritten message declaring, “I know what you did.” In a panic, she calls Ransom.
Blanc sits down with Great Nana, telling her that she must have seen everything at the house. She stares at him and doesn’t answer. Blanc says he’s got time, and the scene cuts away.
Firefighters arrive at a massive fire…at the county medical examiner’s office. Elliott, Wagner, and Blanc show up too. It turns out, the toxicology report and any blood samples are gone. Ransom and Marta also show up in Marta’s car. They’re shocked to see the office on fire. Ransom asks Marta if anyone blackmailed her for the toxicology report, and she checks her email on her phone. She did get a mysterious email from an unknown sender that morning, asking to meet at 1690 Columbus Street at 10am. It’s 9:30, so they have to leave now to make the meeting.
Marta looks up – Blanc has spotted them, and he, Elliott, and Wagner give chase. Marta panics, throwing the car around and speeds away. Or, as best as her beater car can do it. Ransom complains they should have taken his car. Blanc tries to call her several times (even driving up level to her and pointing at his phone), but she ignores him. She manages to evade them by driving down several side alleys. She and Ransom start to make a plan about getting the toxicology report and destroying it….until Elliott knocks on her window.
It’s over. Except that they lead Ransom away after frisking him. Ransom looks at her – stick to the plan. Blanc asks Marta if Ransom asked her to drive, and she says yes. She manages to get inside her car before vomiting a little into a soda cup. Blanc joins her, intending for them to drive back to the Thrombey home so he can give his final report to the family. They start driving and happen to pass Columbus Street. It’s 9:58, so Marta asks innocently if she can stop somewhere for a few minutes to drop something off. Blanc, none the wiser, agrees.
1690 Columbus is an abandoned laundromat. It’s dark, and Marta finds her medical bag on the floor near the door. There is a still figure sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. Marta says she intends to get the report no matter what, but the figure doesn’t move. She comes closer and uses her phone’s flashlight to see. We see a woman’s sickly face with a spider crawling across her eye – it’s Fran the Thrombey’s housekeeper! She seems to be dead, overdosed presumably from a morphine vial on the floor. Marta gasps, then Fran. Fran’s still alive! Marta gets her to the floor to try and free her. Fran sputters, “You did this.” Marta debates what to do, choosing Fran or her mother’s fate….but ultimately, her good heart wins out. She calls 911 and starts CPR on Fran.
Outside in Marta’s car, Blanc is on his headphones listening to loud music and singing along, when an ambulance rushes in. He finds Marta upset, and Marta tells him the entire truth, unable to run any longer. Blanc says Ransom corroborated her story, then takes them back to the Thrombey home. The hospital will call Marta with any updates on Fran.
Back at the Thrombey home, Meg hugs Marta and apologizes. In the dramatic living room with the elaborate knife throne display, Marta begins to tell the family that she accidentally killed Harlan…when Blanc dramatically interrupts, telling the entire family off for being entitled brats. Marta, in utter confusion, asks what is going on. Blanc throws the entire family out of the room, whispering to Wagner to bring one of them in later. He’s going to make his final report to the investigators.
Blanc always knew he had something missing, but speaking with Great Nana and hearing Marta’s full story has finally explained everything to him. The way that Marta told him, Ransom was fixated on Marta’s relationship with Harlan and felt robbed that Marta would get everything. That’s what their fight at the party was about: Ransom discovered what the amended will said, and threatened Harlan.
Wagner brings in Ransom, and Blanc tells the entire story: Ransom is aware the only way that Marta will not get Harlan’s money is if she is responsible for his death. So Ransom frames her. After leaving in a huff, he climbed up the trellis to sneak back into the house during the party. (Great Nana also saw him leave the house via the trellis, hence her saying, “Ransom, are you back already?” when Marta did the same thing later that night.)
Having had some previous medical training, Ransom switched the liquid in the two vials and removed the morphine counteragent from Marta’s medical bag. He expected Marta to read the labels and accidentally overdose Harlan on morphine. But Marta actually gave Harlan the right medications, unaware that the medications had been switched already. She had relied on the feel of the liquid in the bottles to tell her what they were, instead of relying on the labels. If Harlan had allowed her to call 911 and had gotten checked out, he would have lived. Harlan’s death is not Marta’s fault.
Ransom had intended on sneaking back into the house later that night to return the counteragent to Marta’s bag, further incriminating her. But the two dogs barked at him at the side gate, waking Linda. (Which matches the timeline.)
After Harlan was discovered with a slit throat, Ransom needed to do more. Knowing that the medical examiner would look at the blood pattern and conclude suicide, he needed someone to further investigate and find the overdose. So he sent Blanc an envelope of cash and an article about Harlan’s death. That’s how Blanc was “hired.”
But there was a hitch in his plan. Ransom had to skip the funeral, so he could avoid his family and the investigators in the house to return the counteragent to Marta’s bag. But the house wasn’t empty – Fran saw Ransom rummaging in Marta’s bag and knew he was up to no good. Fran had a cousin at the medical examiner’s office, so she got a copy of the toxicology report and threatened Ransom with it. Ransom made a copy of the threat and slipped it into Marta’s mail-slot. Ransom, knowing that the toxicology report would not show an overdose, threw a Molotov cocktail through the medical examiner’s office window. But Fran still had two copies, one of which she hid in the drawer with the joints, which Blanc pulls out to show the investigators. Fran intended to meet Ransom at 1690 Columbus Street at 8am that same day. She tried to threaten him, but he chloroformed her and stabbed her in the neck with a syringe full of morphine. While leaving, he burned the toxicology report. He then sent the anonymous email to Marta, asking to meet at the same place at 10am, where she would find Fran’s body. But he didn’t expect that Marta would sacrifice her own future (and her mother’s future) by saving Fran. And Fran wasn’t saying, “You did this,” she was really saying, “Hugh did this.” (Fran was the only person who referred to Ransom by his first name.)
Marta gets a call from the hospital. She announces to the group that Fran’s going to be okay, and she’ll be ready to talk soon. In a rage, Ransom confesses to everything and tells Marta she doesn’t deserve the money like he does because he was born into this privilege, and she wasn’t. He’s finally stopped by Marta projectile vomiting all over his face. Wagner and Elliott try to come to her aid, but she says she’s all right and waves them off, wiping her mouth.
They realize she must have lied, and she did. Fran is dead, and Ransom just confessed to her murder, recorded on Wagner’s phone. Ransom says in resignation, “In for a penny, in for a pound,” grabs a knife from the knife display throne, and rushes toward Marta. They both fall to the floor, knife embedded in Marta’s chest. But she’s still breathing, and there’s no blood. Ransom pulls the knife away – he’d grabbed a prop knife. He exclaims, “Shit!” as he’s pulled off Marta.
Blanc has one last conversation with Marta, saying that he wouldn’t help that family in any way, but that she’ll make the right decision. She asks Blanc when he knew she was there when Harlan died, and he says the first moment he saw her, because of the drop of blood on her shoe. He’s known this whole time but believed in her good heart. She looks at the smiling portrait of Harlan.
Richard is arguing with the investigators outside while Ransom is being led away in handcuffs. At the same time, Linda has discovered Harlan’s blank letter to her, left in its envelope by Richard. Using a lighter, she heats up the back of the letter, revealing Harlan’s writing in invisible ink, explaining that Richard has been cheating on her. She drops her cigarette from her mouth and glares at Richard.
The family gathers outside and watches Ransom being driven away. They look back at the house, and upward. Marta is there on the second-floor balcony, looking down at them all, sipping from a mug declaring “My house.”
Harlan Thrombey ultimately did kill himself, by cutting his own throat. He believed he was going to die in 10 minutes from a morphine overdose, accidentally administered by his nurse Marta. He kills himself after telling Marta how to get away with it. He has great fondness for her and didn't want her to get in trouble for his death. Unbeknownst to her, he had recently changed his will to give her his entire estate, cutting off his entire family financially. If Marta had been found responsible for his death, she would have gotten nothing.
But it turns out Harlan would have lived if he'd let Marta call 911. His grandson Ransom, who'd had some medical training, had switched medications in their vials in Marta's medical bag, intending on using Marta as a proxy to kill his grandfather for cutting them all off financially. But Marta, going by the feel of the vials in her hands rather than the labels, had actually given the right medications. She had panicked when she saw the labels were wrong, but if Harlan had been taken to the hospital, he would have been all right, and it would have been a different investigation entirely.
The housekeeper Fran witnessed Ransom going through Marta's medical bag. Fran intends on blackmailing him with the toxicology report that would have proven Marta's innocence. In response, he overdoses her with morphine and tries to frame Marta for that murder too. He also sets the medical examiner's office on fire, destroying all samples and records, so his deception can't be discovered.
With Benoit Blanc's wit and Marta's quick thinking, Ransom ends up confessing to the whole plot, and is arrested. Marta ends up inheriting Harlan's entire estate, although how much she helps the rest of the family remains to be seen.