When I was a practicing family therapist, I was taught that every family has two things quietly written into their social and genealogical DNA: a culture and a legacy. The culture of a family is the set of understood rules of how to operate: who deserves attention, who is scapegoated in case of emergency, how chores are done, how birthdays are celebrated. The legacy is the collection of ideals that the family, if asked, would say are their core values. These are the qualities they want to pass on through the years, noble things like “hard work” or “bravery.” However, there is almost always a less lofty, never discussed, latent legacy that will be passed on in every family as well. This legacy is made up of the (usually maladaptive) emotional patterns that they have developed over generations — a style of arguing, abusive behavior, being withholding emotionally, a desperate wanting that will never be filled. A family may not be aware of their latent legacy, but it will continue to be passed on either way.
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This underlying latent legacy is very difficult to portray in a movie about a family. Rian Johnson does it shrewdly and elegantly. In his newest movie, “Knives Out,” he gives us a guided tour through the Thrombey family’s culture and their legacy, but with a massive inheritance and a good old-fashioned murder mystery thrown in as well. Rian has always been a sharp observer of the hierarchies we create and become beholden to, large and small. His scripts are efficient, with not a word wasted, and yet speak volumes about their characters. “Knives Out” is no different. To be able to tell the story of a family — its culture and legacy! — while weaving an incredibly engrossing whodunit is a master work in itself. To have that story be fun and infused with sly commentary on class and wealth in America elevates it to genius.
The Thrombey children are self-absorbed, moneyed, arrogant creatures, but they’re not like that because they’re rich; they’re like that because they believe they deserve to be rich. Therein lies the real legacy of the Thrombeys, whether they like it or not: entitlement, with a hefty dose of narcissism thrown in. We enjoy watching them because it’s fun to watch arrogant people in crisis, but really, deep down, perhaps we enjoy watching them because seeing the Thrombey’s latent legacy being played out makes us feel a little bit better about our own messy families.
Emily V. Gordon co-wrote “The Big Sick.”