Glass Onion and the Post-Whodunnit Detective Story

Glass Onion is fantastic, a thoroughly contemporary satirical comedy that also feels like a comfortable, old-fashioned murder mystery

I loved Knives Out, so I was excited about its sequel Glass Onion even before the casting announcements seemed to be attracting so many great people that it became a running joke on Twitter. I was worried that it wouldn’t be able to live up to my own hype, or that the things that made Knives Out such a revelation wouldn’t be repeatable. So much of the appeal of the first was that it seemed to come out of nowhere as a near-perfect, nostalgic homage to detective stories.

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry, since Glass Onion is absolutely fantastic. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a theater, partly because of the crowd of other nerds desperate to see it in the limited run before Netflix relegated it to home streaming, but also because it’s relentlessly entertaining. Just the structure of it alone, with all of the split screens, set-ups, call backs, and twists on top of twists, makes it feel like every scene is a new discovery.

I can’t be too angry with Netflix, I suppose, since it’s their enthusiasm that’s made this sequel possible — you don’t get this many top-of-their-game actors, in a setting like this, for a comfortably old-fashioned movie, without Netflix money — and guarantees at least a third movie in the series. I left Knives Out immediately wanting to see more Benoit Blanc mysteries, so this is better than what I could’ve hoped for. Considering that they seem to be knocking through Agatha Christie settings, and they’ve already done a creepy old house and an idyllic Mediterranean island, I’m hoping that the next one is on a train.

In addition to Daniel Craig returning as Benoit Blanc — and doing an even more spectacular job of making him an instantly classic, unforgettable character — Glass Onion feels perfectly in the same format as Knives Out, and suggests what is going to be the recurring format of the series: old-fashioned stories in completely (in this case, even presciently) contemporary settings, a cast full of actors doing some of their best work and completely embracing their parts, and a story structure that’s constantly folding in on itself and recontextualizing itself.

Plus, possibly, a recurring theme, which is that “rich people suck.” There’s an even more satirical edge to this one than the last. In fact, while Knives Out felt endlessly clever, Glass Onion is more outright funny. I thought it was interesting that the last three movies I’ve seen by Rian Johnson — who is at this point undeniably wealthy — have been pointedly savage against greed and ostentatious displays of money.

Everyone in the cast is great, but the standouts for me were Dave Bautista (who is so consistently good at this that it’s easy to forget how good he is), Kate Hudson (who seemed to be having an absolute blast), and especially Janelle Monáe. I already thought she1Based on that interview, I’m assuming Monáe still accepts she/her pronouns was a superhero, but she is astoundingly good in Glass Onion. She gives one of those performances that understands not only the character, but the whole tone of the entire movie, down to a fundamental level.

I’ve mentioned before that I started picking one thing I like about a piece of art or entertainment to avoid my natural inclination to go into everything like I was preparing for a book report. Recently, that’s started to backfire, though, since now I go into everything looking for the one detail I’m going to pick out to write about it. In Glass Onion, I’d picked one early on, a clever bit of characterization through dialogue that was perfectly executed. It turned out later on that that turned out to be the clue that helped break the case, so there goes that idea for a blog post, I guess. Back to the book reports.

I still haven’t gotten to the point of this blog post, and I really can’t without giving too much away. There’s not much more that I can say about Glass Onion without potentially spoiling a wonderful experience for someone, so I’ll just say: watch it as soon as it comes out on Netflix, and please stop reading this immediately if you haven’t seen it already.

Make a bookmark or something so you can come back later, because I’ve got thoughts and questions.

I still don’t want to go too far down the route of comparing Glass Onion to Knives Out, but there’s one comparison in particular that I think is interesting: how much do they actually care about being murder mysteries?

The thing that was so clever about the structure of Knives Out was that it was simultaneously a Poirot-style murder mystery and a Columbo-style detective story: the audience knows who the murderer is early on, so there’s all the tension of a story where you’re waiting for them to get caught, but it also leaves open the question of who the real murderer is. (This video essay goes into the idea in more detail, but adds the insightful observation that the switch corresponds to Benoit Blanc flipping a coin. It’s almost like Rian Johnson asking, “which style of comfortable old-fashioned murder mystery do you want?”)

The structure of Glass Onion is at least as complex, but to me it seemed to be geared entirely towards the audience’s experience watching it, more than playing out the central murder mystery(-ies). Benoit Blanc basically comes out and says it explicitly: this mystery is dumb. He’d been wanting a complex and baffling case to test his deduction skills, but he’d been looking for layers of complexity in the desperate, greedy acts of an idiot who believed himself to be a genius. In fact, the only hint of artfulness in the murder was an idea stolen from Blanc himself.

You don’t need to have been watching the collapse of Twitter, or even the shitshow of American politics since 2016, to appreciate who and what are being satirized here. People are too eager to look for master plans and elaborate moves of fourth-dimensional chess that they miss the more obvious truth, which is that stupid people get to do whatever they want as long as they have enough money.

That leads me to believe that the priorities for Glass Onion were, in order: story, satire, and then mystery as a distant third. I’m still not even convinced that the mystery even makes sense. Because the movie is so funny, and because I was watching it with a crowd of people all laughing and gasping at the surprises, it’s entirely possible I missed details that will become clearer when I see it a second (and third, fourth, etc) time. But at the moment, after one viewing, the questions I have are:

  1. Why didn’t Miles freak out more when Andi showed up on the island? He seemed to be more alarmed when Benoit Blanc appeared uninvited, enough to call him over privately. Did he assume that she had survived, but he didn’t need to worry because she’d be unable to prove anything? It seems like even an over-confident idiot would have had a stronger reaction to the sudden appearance of the person he’d thought he murdered.
  2. When did Miles send the invitation to Andi? There was a lot of talk about timing and who was where when, but it was difficult for me to follow without a clearer idea of when the story itself was set. I know that he went to her house after he found out about the napkin, but I couldn’t tell if that was before or after he’d sent the invitation, or why he sent an invitation to her in the first place.
  3. Did Miles even intend to kill Andi? Did he drug her in order to find and steal the napkin, and didn’t care whether it was a fatal dose or not?
  4. Why was Andi with Miles in the first place? I understand that “stupid white men failing upwards” is a theme of the movie. But the real people that Miles is supposed to be an amalgam of — Zuckerberg, then Jobs, then Musk — each started with something, whether it be an idea, actual talent, or a family fortune. Miles was presented as a complete loser who was nothing until Andi discovered him. Is the idea just the obvious fact that people will listen to a confident white man instead of an actually competent black woman?2I admit my bias is showing here, because it strains my suspension of disbelief that Janelle Monáe would ever be refused anything she wanted. 3And I do get the story significance of naming her Cassandra, when she warned people about the dangers of Klear but nobody would listen to her.

It’s not at all uncommon for me to watch a movie and not get it, especially if it’s as fun, clever, and enjoyable as Glass Onion is. What was so interesting in this case was that it was a murder mystery, which is typically full of satisfying Oh, so THAT’s what happened! moments, as we see the details of the crime play out, and the key moments that cracked the case for the detective. Glass Onion does deliver plenty of those moments, but it was only on the drive home that I realized they had little if anything to do with the kind of revelations you see over the course of a murder mystery.

In Glass Onion, the recaps and revelations are about the theme, story, and characters, more than about the actual crimes. Again, it’s spelled out explicitly: the murders and attempted murder were dumb, simple crimes carried about by a dumb, simple person. Somebody who’d invite friends over for a murder mystery weekend that he didn’t even write. The various layers of clues, motives, and opportunities were all either: 1) Rian Johnson showing off how good he is at brilliantly-constructed screenplays that contain genuine surprises for jaded audiences, and 2) illustrations of how awful people acquire wealth and power not via their own insidiously genius master plans, but simply by being surrounded by people who are too motivated by self-interest to do the right thing.

I can’t think of any other murder mysteries that have used the “detective explains the case” phase not to explain the case, but to elaborate on the theme. And there’s another twist on the standard murder mystery format that’s pretty interesting: while watching the movie, I thought that the scene in which Helen is smashing all of the glass sculptures was definitely cathartic, but seemed to run long for a movie that was otherwise so tight. I’d picked up on the fact that Blanc had palmed her the nugget of Klear from earlier, and it was also apparent that Chekov’s Mona Lisa was finally going to come into play after being highlighted for so long. So I was a little disappointed that the movie was stalling for the first time — I was surprised to check imdb earlier and see that it was two hours and twenty minutes long, because it seemed to fly by — instead of just delivering the conclusion I was expecting.

Thinking back, I now think that scene — and the entire finale of the movie, in fact — is a necessary break to re-frame the movie from “good old-fashioned murder mystery” to social satire. There are two ideas implicit in the good old-fashioned murder mystery that Glass Onion rejects: the murder is a fun puzzle to be solved, and justice is served once the detective solves the case.

Midway through Glass Onion, Blanc warns Helen that he’s not Batman, which at the time means that he won’t be able to protect her when she’s trapped on an island with a murderer. By the end, it becomes clearer that there’s more to it than that: all he can do is reveal the truth, but revealing the truth doesn’t always mean that justice will follow. Smashing the glass sculptures isn’t just sticking it to the bad guy; it’s a prolonged expression of frustration that the good guys can do everything right and the bad guys can still win.

At the end of Knives Out, we get the satisfying scene of the one good character in the entire story coming out victorious, and all of the greedy, racist, and otherwise unsavory characters getting their much-deserved comeuppance. At the end of Glass Onion, we get a close up of Helen’s face with an enigmatic expression. It’s not an expression of victory, or even closure, but a reminder of the Mona Lisa. How much had to be destroyed just for the sake of one very stupid, arrogant person who’d acquired too much money and power.

  • 1
    Based on that interview, I’m assuming Monáe still accepts she/her pronouns
  • 2
    I admit my bias is showing here, because it strains my suspension of disbelief that Janelle Monáe would ever be refused anything she wanted.
  • 3
    And I do get the story significance of naming her Cassandra, when she warned people about the dangers of Klear but nobody would listen to her.