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Vibes Out: Is Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery Really a Mystery?

Detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, sits in a glass atrium.Daniel Craig in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Photo by John Wilson, courtesy of Netflix)

Is Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, in fact, a mystery? It certainly presents as one at its beginning, when a group of unlikely friends, whom we will come to know as “the shitheads,” are whisked away to the private island of billionaire-bro Miles Bron (Edward Norton). As Daniel Craig’s returning sleuth Benoit Blanc points out, “You’ve taken seven people, each of whom has a real-life reason to wish you harm, gathered them together on a remote island and placed the idea of your murder in their heads.” So far, so trad. The film’s setting isn’t as familiar to mainstream audiences as its 2019 predecessor Knives Out’s mist-shrouded mansion, but anyone with a passing familiarity with Agatha Christie’s novels knows of the destination murder vacay. The initial on-screen death occurs, however, an hour into the two-hour twenty-minute runtime, and the body isn’t Bron’s. Blanc does proceed to look into the murder, but only as a part of an investigation which began well before the film’s opening scene, explicated in a flashback that kicks in at 1:10 and delivers 37 whole minutes of recontextualization. Blanc, it turns out, has come to the island to investigate the murder of Bron’s former business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), impersonated in the present by her twin sister Helen. Post-flashback Blanc delivers the traditional parlor-room monologue revealing guilt (for the second time in the film; the first was as farce), but once the killer is revealed, it is Helen who must bring them to justice.  

The Golden Age detective story, perfected between the two major European land wars of the 20th century, followed a semi-stable set of rules generated by a relatively close-knit collection of writers. These were most formally articulated by author and critic Ronald Knox in his “Ten Commandments of Detection” (1928), which disallow both accidents and supernatural elements, prevent the detective from having access to clues the reader doesn’t and generally set up the detective story as a game between author and reader. As with all things Albion, from cricket to imperial slaughter, fair play was front of mind. Even if Glass Onion doesn’t violate the letter of Knox’s final rule (“Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them”), it certainly violates the spirit by withholding the exact nature of Blanc’s investigation until over halfway through. 

Incensed by said violation, noted American attorney Benjamin Shapiro took to Twitter to bemoan Johnson’s obscuring of “the actual murder we’re supposed to investigate.” While this formulation conflates the detective story with VR and the first-person role-playing game, it is not entirely out of keeping with a genre which has historically prized ratiocination and game-playing above all else. American Golden Age detective novelist John Dickson Carr described the detective story as “a hoodwinking contest, a duel between author and reader…with the reader alert for every dropped clue, every betraying speech, every contradiction that might mean guilt.” In his enthusiastic 1972 survey Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, author and critic Julian Symons relates an escalation of flummoxing which led to a surge of formal innovation within guidelines “as strict and artificial as that of Restoration plays,” producing experiments such as Edward Powys Mathers’ Cains Jawbone (1934), in which one of the mysteries is the correct order of the novel’s pages. (Mathers’ novel is briefly seen at the foot of Blanc’s bathtub of despond.) 

Another practitioner, H. R. F. Keating, identified a different result of the genre’s strictures: “dullness in everything except the riddles.” This singlemindedness helped the detective story fade less into obscurity than the special place where genres go when they have ceased to evolve and are kept alive almost purely as cultural artifacts, fertile ground not only for the bald satire of Clue (1985) and its superior spiritual predecessor Murder by Death (1976) but more aggressive subversions such as the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. In his Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder (2022), David Bordwell claims later authors such as Umberto Eco and Donna Tartt wrote bestsellers which found “in the rules of the game many expectations that could be fruitfully overturned.”

This makes Knives Out something of an aberration. Not only did it introduce a new transcendent detective (Bordwell’s phrase) in Blanc, it also made a staggering amount of money, reconfigured the genre towards contemporary concerns (the revived culture wars, white privilege) and, most importantly, followed Knox’s Commandments. If the dead body discovered in Knives Out’s opening turns out not to have, ultimately, been that of a murder victim, we still investigate the mysterious death alongside Blanc, never having fewer clues than he does and, at points, having more. I’m sure Mr. Shapiro was satisfied. 

However, in his interview with Greg Mottola, Johnson relates that Knives Out’s screenplay only began to come together when he considered “the inherent weakness of a whodunit plot, which is that, at some point, clue gathering and the puzzle aspect cannot keep your attention.” Johnson’s solution was to rework the second act into a Wrong (Wo)man narrative (another semi-inactive genre) before switching back into whodunit mode for the third act. In a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron, Johnson goes even further, stating, “there’s the illusion that these things are puzzles that are fairly presented to the audience. I think it’s actually really important in writing them to realize they’re not.” Johnson doesn’t care about the rules; he prefers the vibes.  

In this, he is not alone. Lucy Foley’s best-selling novel The Guest List (2020), selected by Reese’s Book Club, proudly sports a cover blurb from the New York Times Book Review comparing it to “the great Agatha Christine classics.” Yet while the novel extensively develops the motives of its various luxe or luxe-adjacent, barely-differentiated first-person narrators, there are no clues proffered and the identity of the victim, much less the murder method or site, is not revealed until the climax, making it impossible for the reader to more than blindly guess whodunit. Mike White’s aspirational destination hell comedy White Lotus (2021-2022) similarly hinges on violent deaths whose true nature are not revealed until each season’s climax. The Menu (2022) has the by-the-numbers opening of a detective story, only to slowly veer into a class-based foodie Wicker Man. Johnson’s own streaming series Poker Face, stemming from Columbo rather than Christie, is a “howcatchem”. Each episode opens with a murder, and the tension results not from who-, why-, or howdunit but how the preternaturally gifted protagonist will stitch together the clues. Detective Vibes sell; the Detective Story does not. 

If these narratives are no longer detective stories, can they then be “mysteries”? Genre discourse presents several distinct event horizons. My pragmatic colleague Vikram Murthi likes to refer to genre as “a container into which anything can be poured.” Frederic Jameson, in his decade-old The Antinomies of Reason, offers an academic rephrasing: genres are “codified narrative structures,” which would seem to neatly negate any attempt to reframe the detective story purely via vibes. However, in the post-Barnes and Noble era, the terminal arbiter of genre is now the streamer’s algorithm. One of the (many) fallacies of the entertainment industry’s ongoing obsession with the monomyth is the operating assumption that every genre is, in essence, a delivery system for the Hero’s Journey. There is One Story, and our interests, whether they be torture porn or talking dogs, serve only as disguises. Is Captain America: Winter Solider (2014) a ‘70s paranoid thriller? Of course not, although it LARPs the genre structurally for a while before gradually sloughing into the regulated beats of MCU Phase Two. Previous attempts to revive genres (remember the neo-noir?) attempted to incorporate new social codes and developing archetypes into historically defined structures. Today’s Big Brands don’t bother. The audience wants to know what ride they’re on, or so producers will tell you, and all rides end in the same place.   

Bordwell’s answer is far less nihilistic. He coins an Ur-genre in which, pace Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky, “we know there’s something we don’t know.” Yet by considering the detective story alongside the police procedural, thriller, spy novel, et al. we lose what Johnson retains: the disruption of the social order through violent death, the hunt for the culprit who hides in plain sight, the detective’s ratiocination and the final unmasking of the criminal, which will supposedly lead to the restoration of social order. This is the other reason why people consume detective stories. Katie Tobin asks, in a recent piece in Little White Lies, why detective stories are on the rise after a period in which a multinational reckoning with police violence was attempted. The assumption that this reckoning was in any way successful beyond the introduction of a certain style in corporate optics seems fatally flawed, but the question nonetheless returns us to Symons, who writes that in the period of 1890 to 1940 detective fiction offered “a reassuring world in which those who tried to disturb the established order were always discovered and punished.” 

Johnson understands this better than his contemporaries. “Disruption” is ever in the mouth of Norton’s Bron. At first this seems nothing more than an easy satire of the billionaire-bro, a contemporary archetype which has already begun to ossify. As Glass Onion progresses, we learn that Bron has thoroughly disrupted the lives of everyone on the island (save for Blanc and his obverse, Derol, who’s “not here”), bending their futures to his will as easily as he manipulates his shareholders with patent bunk. At the climax, we are invited to contrast this disruption with an orgy of property destruction sparked by the fury of a grieving Black woman, not the transcendent detective’s feat of ratiocination. What Blanc’s monologue could not engender—the shitheads’ understanding that they alone can hold Bron accountable for his actions and subsequent resolution to do so—Helen’s righteous anger can. (One of the reasons why it’s A Knives Out Mystery, not A Benoit Blanc Mystery.) Whether or not this is remotely convincing depends less upon the viewer’s politics and more upon their desire to see an ending that is not completely hopeless. As Blanc watches the titular structure explode into arcs of fire, he wears the slightly smug smile of one who has amused himself with his game but is, of course, sympathetic to those players who were always on the side of right. It is certainly not the worst place to situate in the transcendent detective in the contemporary. 

So. We have interviewed the suspects, assembled the evidence, and engaged in a lengthy monologue, yet we have not answered the central question: Is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, in fact, a mystery? We have cunningly ignored the obvious answer. The film actually begins with each of the shitheads receiving an intricately constructed cabinet containing a number of complex games and riddles which must be solved for its mechanisms to deliver Bron’s island invitation. The sequence ends with Helen regarding the cabinet before going off-screen, returning with a hammer and bashing the shit out of it. Johnson is giving us, here, the entire film in miniature as introduction. During his near-climatic monologue, Blanc drawls, “I expected complexity. I expected intelligence. I expected a puzzle, a game. But that’s not what any of this is. It hides not behind complexity, but behind mind-numbing, obvious clarity.” This is, ultimately, what Johnson brings to the detective story. The game which the transcendent detective thrives upon no longer exists. It never existed in the first place. Moriarty, Fantômas, and Irma Vep were always a dodge. True evil walks the land smiling, maskless, deeply obvious. 

The billionaire-bro done it. 

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