Inheritance (2020) explained: who’s really in chains?

Low-angle shot of red high heeled shoes on a dirt path.

Basement thriller Inheritance flips the tables on power and punishment. So why is it such a woman-proofed world?

As District Attorney, Lauren Monroe (Lily Collins) is a woman on top. She has her hands full juggling court cases and family life, and a wardrobe full of designer labels. Then, out of the blue, dad Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton) dies.

Despite cutting her out of his staggering fortune, Archer entrusts Lily with a secret inheritance – one buried at the bottom of the garden. But opening the door to this hidden knowledge threatens to destroy Lily and everything she cares about.

Bringing out the bodies

Where there’s muck, there’s brass. In other words, making money means getting your hands dirty. This is fitting for Vaughn Stein’s basement thriller, which uses metaphors of muck and money to make a damning critique of contemporary America, wealth and privilege.

Metaphors of muck and money make a damning critique of contemporary America, wealth and privilege

Archer Monroe is the head of a powerful and pristine family. They’re good looking, wealthy and well-connected. Lauren is the black sheep: as DA, she puts public good before family success. This is the source of a rift between dad and daughter, and supposedly the reason Archer’s will leaves £1m to Lauren, but £20m to son William.

It’s not long before we learn this perfect American family is an illusion. The Monroes quite literally build their wealth on dirty secrets … including the man Archer imprisons in a bunker beneath the garden (see also Parasite).

This man, Morgan Warner (Simon Pegg), clues Lauren into other problems. Her father has a second, secret family. Oh, and 30 years earlier Archer accidentally killed someone and buried the body – getting his hands dirty once more – in a remote wood.

Lauren’s dilemma is how to handle Morgan without destroying the family’s reputation (and wealth). This is especially tricky given her profession – one built on moral and ethical choices. But very quickly, she prioritises family loyalty. Ironically, this is exactly what Archer wanted while alive.

The problem with privilege

The film’s message is that privilege is never innocent. Where there’s wealth, there’s deep-rooted exploitation – or worse. For Lauren, being part of the family means being culpable, and that’s even before she colludes in Archer’s secret.

Such systemic, widespread wrongdoing may be buried away, but it rarely stays unseen. Morgan’s character is emblematic of dirty secrets pushed out of sight. He’s one more repressed memory or desire lurking beneath the surface, waiting for a chance to break free (see also What Lies Beneath).

It’s a timely message for the Black Lives Matter era, another example of repressed wrongdoing bursting back into the consciousness of Empire.

This is Lauren’s ‘inheritance’

This is Lauren’s ‘inheritance’: along with wealth and privilege, she inherits her father’s secrets, a chained man, and her family’s talents for wrongdoing.

But in the film’s final twist, we’re left wondering how much such a legacy is really worth. Whether she’s Archer’s daughter or Morgan’s, Lauren is the child of a murderous and manipulative man.

The film’s greatest judgement seems aimed at the one character who tries to make the world a better place. Why is that?

Women in chains

On the surface, Lauren is a successful, confident woman. She has a high-level career, immaculate fashion sense, and a family of her own. Beneath the surface – literally, in the basement – female empowerment is a far more fragile thing.

Inheritance’s red herring is that Morgan Warner is a man imprisoned against his will. In fact, it’s women who are really captive or in chains.

Lauren learns that, as a woman, she can’t have a career and a family. She doesn’t have time for her husband and daughter, and they barely feature other than to show Lauren’s failings. Meanwhile, Archer can build a fortune, a hidden prison AND a secret second family and still be home in time for dinner. It’s these dual standards which make the film feel dated in places.

More troubling is what the plot makes of female agency.

At the end of the movie, we discover that Morgan (or Carson, as he’s really known) raped Catherine some 30 years earlier. But rather than calling the police and getting professional support, Archer takes control.

His revenge plot goes wrong when he accidentally kills a student, giving Morgan a hold over him. Archer then buries Morgan alive in a prison within walking distance of the woman he attacked. You’ve got to wonder who this punishes more.

Morgan plays Lauren in a similar way. He turns her (feminine) kindness back on her, using it to manipulate her into freeing him. So whether it’s Archer or Morgan or brother William, behind every great woman is a stronger man. It’s they who pull the strings to keep their women in check.

Unleashing the beast

The men also dictate how much the women are allowed to know, and when. This goes for everyone from Archer to William (who’s also up to no good). And of course it applies to Morgan’s final line: “Luke, I’m your god damned father”. Ultimately, daddy Morgan even gets to decide when Lauren finds out who she really is.

But if this suggests a simple hierarchy of men over women, it’s not so clear cut. Inequality comes with consequences.

Like The Silence of the Lambs, the implied message is that men are beasts who must be controlled by the leash, like Morgan. Off the leash, they can’t be trusted: see Archer’s playboy antics with women, poker and murder. And, of course, as soon as Morgan is unchained, he reverts to his true, psychopathic nature.

Far from being masters of the universe, Inheritance keeps men trapped by their supposedly animal nature. They’re incapable of being kind, loyal, loving or truthful.

Meanwhile, the women in this cinema universe are daughters of Eve – frail creatures, cursed by their very femaleness.

The weaker sex

Inheritance ultimately would have you believe that women are the weaker sex.

Catherine is raped. Lauren’s feminine kindness means she’s repeatedly taken in by men. And while a successful lawyer, Lauren’s father even decides her worth. Compared to her brother, she’s worth less – just as many firms pay female employees less than men.

But there’s another very visual, if subtle, reminder that women are continually hampered. Whether climbing in and out of bunkers or hunting for skeletons, Lauren does it in high-heeled shoes, tailored suits and coordinated leisure wear.

The film would have been very different if the Monroes had been working class or non-white

Inheritance is a glossy take on Rich People Struggles and, on-screen, that means hard times tempered by comfort and privilege. The film would be very different if the Monroes were working class or non-white. Just compare how real life basement tales are reported by newspapers: stories of sex abuse, slavery and kidnapping are rarely so stylized and neatly resolved in the suburbs and on council estates.

Lauren, like her father, may get her hands dirty – but she’s still ultimately a district attorney with a killer wardrobe. At the end of the film, she retains her privilege and power. When all is said and done, Lauren can bury the bodies and escape – no questions asked.

Inheritance (2020), directed by Vaughn Stein

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Picture credit: Aleks Marinkovic