Beware, contains spoilers!
“Well, here’s another clue for you all:
The walrus was Paul.”
So jeers John Lennon in The Beatles’s “Glass Onion”, a song plied with red herrings to laugh at those who read far too much into the band’s lyrics.
Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, which was released on Netflix in December, the sequel to the well-regarded (thoughperhaps too much so) 2019 Knives Out, refuses successful detective work by the spectator. With twists, turns, and flashbacks, the viewer is never given the opportunity to believe that they could work out the mystery.
Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a Zuckerberg-Musk-esque tech billionaire who invites a star-studded group of old friends to his private island for a murder mystery game, where he will be play-murdered. But, surprise! In the first (and most obvious) of the film’s promised twists, the game is quickly cut off and a real murder occurs instead. In fact, there are several, including one before the time of the film starts.
And who is there to solve the case? Daniel Craig’s drawling southern Benoît Blanc, of course. With the help of a handy ‘twin’ device (played by Janelle Monáe), we find out through the course of the film the motives of each character on the island, and finally who is the murderer, in a lengthy final scene culminating in the Mona Lisa burning to ashes. Gone is the eerie and autumnal Art Deco of the first film, and instead is stifling heat and swimming pools.
Johnson’s plot borrows heavily from—if not pillages—Agatha Christie. The concept of a cast of eccentric characters stuck together on an island is not new (see And Then There Were None, 1939), nor is the opening declaration of a death before it has happened (see A Murder is Announced, 1950). Glass Onion is rife with intrigue and clever ideas, yet, if we were to raise Christie up from the dead to give Johnson a few pointers, I think she would advise the following:
Firstly, spend more time with each character individually.
Caricaturing Elon Musk, Norton’s Miles Bron turns out simply bland in comparison. His group of friends is not much more compelling. Despite a clever, and quite literally ‘on the nose,’ scene in which the politics of each of the characters is demonstrated by their mask-wearing style (the film is set in May 2020), the men’s rights activist (Dave Bautista), scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.), and corrupt politician (Kathryn Hahn) do not develop much further from their introduction. Their possible motives are identical and vague: save their own career by backing the rich guy, and not the truth. An oddly-integrated mix, the friendship of the self-described ‘Disruptors’ is hard to believe, and the dynamics appear much weaker than the intriguingly dysfunctional family of the first Knives Out. The film mocks its characters, but we have no reason to care.
Secondly, allow the viewer to believe they can guess the culprit (even if they will inevitably be wrong.)
Johnson seems to laugh at the watcher. A third of the way in, he pulls us back: none of what you just saw was the whole truth. An element of the viewer’s trust is lost as previous scenes are peeled back to reveal missed dialogue. The basis of the ‘murder mystery’ genre is eclipsed by clever scene cutting and a self-referential script which claps itself on the back (“Stop these malapropisms!” Blanc reflects on Bron’s previous lines.) Anything from this point on could still be a lie, for all we know.
Finally… the twist is based around a twin, really?
The film is certainly entertaining and flashy enough to fill its 139 minutes, yet for all its cleverness, perhaps it needs to go back to Agatha Christie a bit.